By TITO GENOVA VALIENTE
SANITY is the main problem of the film Dementia. Sanity is also the boring concern of the film. In the process, Dementia loses its grip on us, and we are better demented than sane to enjoy what could have been a majestic project for Nora Aunor.
It cannot be denied that Nora Aunor is the main reason we are all excited about a film regarding a woman who does not recognize anymore reality as we know it. We expect a complexity that may pose once more a challenge—to use that trite word—to this actor that has done practically all kinds of roles, and has hurdled the most layered, severely difficult of characters and personas. When the project was announced and the location revealed, we looked to no less than a grand opus because, if there is what you may consider a limitation on Nora, it is that she is wasted in ordinary roles. Nora Aunor is just a force of art that to contain her in scene after scene of deleterious ordinariness is to question the logic behind the decision to even consider the genius of this actor for the role.
Thus, when Dementia opens with the wide expanse and a boat zealously entering the inner waters of a port, we respond to or retreat from the tremendous mystery of the space. The distant hills and dales, the crags and cliffs are astounding characters that add chill to this homecoming. This is location as location should be—trembling and surrounding. There is enough chill and nip in the air. Our character is coming home to a place that is supposed to welcome her back with an embrace, with memories.
The boat disgorges its passengers and one of them is Mara Fabre, effaced in the crowd. She looks around and the camera turns to the other actors to announce and tell us she does not remember anything anymore. We wait for that close-up, an elementary rule in film language to establish the character of this narrative. There is none. Well, not the kind to exploit the skill of this actor who is credited for establishing the primacy of nuances and subtleties in Philippine cinema. If there is a person whose money shot is in those close-ups and extreme close-ups, it is Nora Aunor. The next minutes have Mara walking up and down and into hallways. There are many shots of this walk. If these long tracking shots are metaphors for the return to an origin and a search of the well of remembrances, then they are ineffective. The walks are tedious and they are not marked by the presence of the character, with the camera committing the grave sin of omission. In these walks, Nora Aunor as Mara is not served at all by the cinematography. The long minutes of Mara in the isolation of the landscape fail to capture the delineation of an actor who is able to sublimate all kinds of theatricality to serve an intense recipe of homegrown guilt and hurt. The story is promising; could it have been the screenplay that neglected to honor the presence of a great actor?
The opening of Dementia reminds me of that of Mes de Guzman’s Ang Kuwento ni Mabuti: the protagonist stands and a thunder rumbles from a distance. Mabuti, as played by Nora Aunor, looks up at the sky and with a face that is grazed upon by pains and doubts, introduces to us the parable about good and evil. The sound we hear seems to be heard also by Mabuti. We are there in her story. We are inside her thoughts. The opposite seems to take place in Dementia. The music remains non-diegetic—they are music provided by the mind of the filmmaker in aid of his own literary legislation. The music is no more pervasive as it is intrusive. In effect, the music scorer does not seem to trust the time-tested grace of Nora Aunor to provide the scene with the music—and rhythm—coming from her body, from that legendary gaze and those expressive hands that laurelled performances in Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos and Bona, just to cite two major examples.
There are moments of awesomeness in the film, as when the camera pans over the mountains and swoops into crevices and crevasses and the sea stretches into an idea of infinity. This is the Batanes we would like to know more. This is the forgotten island that affirms also the forgotten place in the mind of our Mara. Then we have glimpses of the Nora Aunor that we know, the intensity bridled and caged. And insane! We look at her and wait for that magical moment, when Nora seizes the scene, and tears it apart to leave us not with the violence of the act but with the carcass of a pain, a space, a time. The fans know this in their hearts. They know it when it is there. They know this when it is not.
In the interstices of this story of Mara, the viewers must deal with many questions. Is the film a psychological thriller or a gothic parable? The genres of horror and whodunit are explored and exploited as when hands from nowhere appear to shock us, only to find out that they are of a friendly nature. Almost in the end, the old man of Lou Veloso, outstandingly stereotypical, looks back to the house. This is a mandatory gesture in horror films to indicate that horror never ends. But the film does not end there; it ends—or, at least, flashes back—to a time when Mara Fabre was in the hospital. If there is a certified Nora Aunor moment, it is in the scene when her psychiatrist asks that she be given the chance to read the diary. Nora’s Mara looks at the doctor and in those few seconds registers shadows and light and more shadows from that face. The eyes relent and show that the mind has altered, and the smallest of rage covers her facial landscape. That is the Nora we know.
Bing Loyzaga turns in a lovely performance because it is simple and heartfelt. Jasmine Curtis-Smith shows that in her generation, she is the one who knows the way to good acting. Yul Servo does not serve any purpose in the film. Remove him and the film survives pretty well.
As for Nora Aunor, it is her fate that many of her memorable performances have always been part of many flawed filmmaking. In Dementia, the question begins when her Mara exhibits fear of the unknown and the unseen. Or when she is benign with the phantom of her past. Demented, should Mara be nervous of doors closing? With fire raging in the oven, she stands by the window stoic.
In the small island of Batanes, can one hide a little girl without the neighbors finding out and talking? What is the personal psychology of the adoptive parents of Mara that they would adopt a young girl while enduring their imprisonment of another? A death by jumping off a lovely sight is never investigated? When one gets sick in Batanes, the folk healer is the option. As Yul Servo’s Rommel puts it, there are no doctors in the island. And why are faith healers in films costumed always as if they are bartenders of high-end bars in some Caribbean resorts?
What is really dementia? Is the indie filmmaker and poet Kristian Sendon Cordero right when he asks: Is the real dementia in Batanes brought about by politicians who neglect to put doctors in the islands?
As for Nora Aunor, there is no question about her Mara Fabre. Given the small space to prove her case, Nora Aunor reminds everyone that when it comes to delivering intensity of character, she remains without peer. On the way up the hill that ends in a cliff, Nora Aunor as Mara falls on her knees as the past unfolds before her. You could count up to 20 (the fans would provide you with more) shades of lucidity, realization, and sorrow on that wondrous face and be shaken by an actor that, despite the refinement of her craft through the decades, can still go back to rawness and wound all with her gift. That scene must be one difficult scene for future impersonators. The words are gone; only that face and the world that went away. At the cliff, Nora Aunor embodies the liberation that the mind offers in madness or in rationality. The calmness that overcomes Mara’s many years of forgetting and the smile that rekindles resignation to memory is once more proof that Nora is still the greatest film actor this small republic of ours has ever produced.
In fact, it is this greatness that is the problem of any young filmmaker who considers working with Nora Aunor at this stage of her career. Perci Intalan need not grieve. The director will be blamed; the scriptwriter will be blamed; the cinematographer will be vilified; and the soundman will be accused of dementia. But no one can blame Nora Aunor. All we ask of her is the next great Nora Aunor film.