By Tito Genova Valiente
May 27, 2015
ON June 16 Nora Aunor will receive the Natatanging Gawad Urian. The award recognizes and celebrates the actor’s body of works in cinema.
It has been a long journey for Nora Aunor from the time she sang with dwarfs at the backyard in a film that was more about the lack of magic in our life, to essaying the role of a mother searching for life in the valley of death in the aftermath of a most terrible storm. It is one huge filmic arc that, despite the lows in personal life, sustains a high in acting unseen heretofore in this industry.
As always and even with the expectations by the many, when the award was formally and officially announced by the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino, there were sectors who asked that the recognition be justified. The question is not impertinent; the question merely demanded an answer.
And there are many answers.
There is the social history of cinema. Before Nora, there was the dominant ideology that required all actresses to be fair-skinned, tall and beautiful in the Caucasian way. More than the physical appearance, these actresses had to flesh out roles that conformed to the template of the idealized woman, the one who would do everything to keep the home intact. The actress/woman’s duty was to maintain along with the home her virginity, if she was not married, and her purity, if she was a wife or a mother. The allure of the leading lady was that she was part of the breathtaking landscape. The force to reckon with was this woman who was lovely in her fragility because the men around her were robust in masculinity. When Nora came, even early in those silly musicals, she stood there passive-aggressive in simplicity and unadorned humility. If she had purity, it was shrouded in sincerity that bordered on the naive. The Great Unwash, if we may use the term, was making herself heard. The voice was Nora’s and the body was instinct and genius.
Came 1976. The Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino, battling what it perceived to be the lack of ardent film criticism (and we are not even talking about the absence of an institutionalized film education), rose to the occasion with a radical choice and chose Nora Aunor as its very first Best Actress. The film was Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos. The story was set in the Second World War; the enemy was played by a matinee idol about to become a multiawarded actor. Nora played Rosario, leading lady in form but in content a complex person who would sleep with the enemy and allow the generation of audiences to ask the unsettling question: Was that our war we died for?
It was the new world. The country was rushing away from the memories of the Great War. Japan, the grand nemesis in many war films, was becoming a superpower. It was time to dilute or question the collective memory. It was time for the leading lady to question life by embodying all the complexities of love, loyalty and fealty to a nation. Even if in the end, Nora Aunor’s Rosario dies and the notion of the nation as a punisher is promoted, we see the audacity of an actress to embrace what all leading actresses of the period avoided: to die at the end of the movie.
Nora, already a phenomenon at the time, became an actor in Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos.
It is often a question I ask: Are the fans of Nora Aunor aware that in most of her heralded portrayals, Nora inhabits roles that are duplicitous and convoluted, tortured and twisted in her understanding of the commonly acceptable valuations of roles and mores in society? Nora taught us the sins of the world not by denying them but by displaying the ineptitude and incoherence.
In Bona, Nora Aunor is this daughter who will never be the ideal member of a Filipino family. It is thus, the vindication of community values when Bona is mauled by her brother when she tries to sneak into the house so she could view the remains of her father. It is our fear and shame that this insensibility will befall upon us and Nora is the persona to show us all this. The show is not the crass, sentimental plot about a fallen woman played with flamboyance by Rita Gomez and Charito Solis, but a quirky ballet about religion, fanaticism and the tragedy that shuttles between poverty and identity.
For all the tremendous mystery of the apparition, Elsa in Himala will declare at the end not only the absence of miracles but the end of transcendence. “Tao ang gumagawa ng himala.” Man makes miracles. Leave it to Nora Aunor and her amazing thespic range that each pause, each taking in of the breath brings us to wonder if we could really believe her Elsa. If we believe in the Virgin Mary appearing before the simple girl, then we are the accomplice to a church that upholds the divine vision; if we affirm Elsa’s declaration that there is no miracle, then we are at the mercy of a cult. It is a baffling situation and Nora is part of the puzzle, never completing for us the picture because we are ourselves part of the big picture.
Faith is both shaken and stirred in Himala. A film that brings out of the closet all the tricks of apparitions and faith healing is also the film that represents who we are as people in religion. At the center of this order and peace is this wisp of a woman—unpredictable as a person but predictably excellent as an actor—who unfolds her own mysteries before relentless cameras that never seem to get enough because the actor before the lenses hides and shades her own tremor as a human being. That is acting, that is incarnation, when the word is made flesh and is made to dwell among the viewers.
The new performance and the seeming lack of fear and bias toward any roles enabled critics to look at the performance than the celebrity, the role rather than the royalty. It is late 197os and the military rules but the new film criticism is born, addressing without timidity and this time without question the politics not only of films but of those who make the films.
The extracinematic is born. Nora Aunor’s character in the film is judged within the context of the plot and the resolutions. The same character is investigated following Nora’s fandom, her personal stories, and her politics that while critiqued for unpredictability are, otherwise, always sustained by a sense of daring and independence, even recklessness, rarely seen within the perfumed enclaves of show business. The lines between the reel and the real are once more blurred, this time not for the invasion of the actor’s privacy but for an incursion into her politics and psychology.
If there is a milestone in the career of Nora as an actor, it was in her gradual shift to portraying roles that stopped addressing the vagaries and vulgarities of commerce.
Nora Aunor’s career swung from those monster box-office hits (that satisfied many) to films that did not cause lines to form outside theatres but inside the minds of the enlightened, Nora’s public who care to learn from this most popular of art forms, the movies.
With the roles and films, there was ultimately the formation of new ways of reading cinema. Nora was still the leading lady but there was no more the leading man. In fact, her leading ladies led only because she was Nora Aunor in the film; otherwise, in the narrative they were peripheral personas, not template for good behavior but trails to a forest of symbols. The characters are not always likeable, better for us to look at how life can be unfair and, well, better. Without us knowing it, Nora has lifted the contravida from the dark side of the stock and the stereotype into the center, the spotlight of importance for us to contemplate both the evil and the good, for us to savor the grays and the anomalous, those inscrutable in-betweens that mark us imperfect, human.
In Thy Womb, Shaleha the midwife holds the child that her husband had fathered with another woman. She praises the heavens but could not let go of the infant. When she does, the camera follows the sky. The woman is lost in the eternity that appears to be made for man. Before we got there, we are treated to how an actor suffuses the screen with awesome ordinariness that appears only ordinary because the mind behind those gestures has the gift to make the everyday profound.
Which came first, good criticism or good film? That, of course, is a chicken-and-egg predicament. What is clear is that there is a Nora Aunor, whose manifold characters can bring in a slew of questions. Love her or leave her; take her or leave her. Good critics can disagree with her, dispute the best and worst in her but no good critic can ignore Nora Aunor in cinema. Ever.
Nora Aunor is the Natatangi, separate, singular, distinct for the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino.