Directed by Maria Isabel Legarda. Based on a play by Allan Lopez
With a sigh of relief we greet the emergence of “Melodrama Negra, ” an “indie” film produced under Cinema One Originals and directed by Maribel Legarda. It’s a singular work in a field crowded with the raw and sketchy-to-the-point-of-incoherence. Here is one so polished as to be revisionist—an anti-indie indie! Which leads one to ask, “Have indies come of age? Are they being shaken down to their indie roots?”
To say that “Melodrama,” like every other indie, was underfunded is almost, well, a joke. But thankfully, to lack for cash is not to lack for talent. Here is quality without flash, where all elements underline storytelling, so that the director comes through with her vision untrammeled by self-conscious editing, self-indulgent camera work, or pang-décor décor.
Witness the subtle shift in point-of-view in the scene where the taxi driver butchers passengers inside his cab. One couldn’t help but wince at the scene–photographed at an angle from below, blood splattering all over the lens–as if he were the victim himself being repeatedly stabbed. This is horror, organic and effective. As horrific as the shower scene in Hitchcock’s “Psycho.”
The film’s editing ebbs and flows with every twist and turn–with fast cuts to highlight emotional reaction, or slow meander like a phrase resolving gracefully in appoggiatura (a musical ornament-Ed). As does the musical score, weaving in and out with strains now tender, now percussive, modulating fluently from love song to disco, enchanting when flown in full song by the composer’s voice-over as in the Divina sequence.
In one of the film’s lighter moments Mae Paner, playing a fortuneteller (made-up to look like Frida Kahlo: unibrow, plastic roses on pulled-back hair and all) draws a loud chuckle. Towards the end, graffiti suggesting a morbid valentine is drawn to backdrop the movie’s blackest scene.
Dialog, always in character, is street-smart and original. Examine the scene where a military general confronts his son over the latter’s failing grades. Imagine if Sir General spouts, “At the end of the day, you get your act together, and hit the ground running! ” –worthy to be un-friended by everyone on Facebook, don’t you think?
It’s hard to choose the best performer among the actors. Each has remarkable presence—Sheng Belmonte, stunning as she pole dances; Gerard Acao as the mild-mannered Ilonggo hitman; Gerald Napoles’ crisp but vulnerable delivery (a stream of “putang-ina!” in his dialog notwithstanding); Bong Cabrera, most affecting as the son of a gay parent in the sequence that reprises “Ang Tatay Kong Nanay.” But this is so deftly retold you forget it’s a retelling. Gee Canlas’ superlative scenes with Upeng Fernandez incite sobs, not to forget the smiles drawn whenever Gee slips from beki-speak (gay-speak) into the pear-shaped tones of a call-center accent.
This is ensemble work at its best—tight, concise, honed by shared background in theater, able to articulate with dramatic shorthand. But what of the director’s vision? Dark, to say the least. But as the friend beside me at the screening says, this reflects a truly Pinoy zeitgeist. We are shown fathers becoming victimizers; mothers wallowing in Mater-Dolorosa syndrome; poverty, both material and emotional, inexorably pushing kids into crime.
What a roller-coaster ride! Unrelenting, spiraling ever downward into the blackest of black! But so what? Buñuel was equally unforgiving. And Lina Wertmuller wore the gloves of steel! Frequently we are told it’s not where you go but how you get there. So, with this caveat, let’s simply enjoy the ride, relishing how black is tempered with light moments, with humor, wit and most of all, moments of high drama and emotion.
Towards the end when the young man makes love to the dead girl-of-his-dreams (he has just killed her) and then shouts “Mama! ” as he climaxes, is not a cry of sexual ecstasy. It’s a real cri-de-coeur, one coming from the depths of a neglected and tormented soul. This, too, is a prime example of how a director well versed in theater wrings out genuine pathos from what’s literally (pardon the kolehiyala-speak) “kadiri-to-death!”
And what of the quibble that “Melodrama” is too well made to be “indie? ” Being “indie” is not just a style, it is a spirit—that spirit that lies beyond age, or what’s fashionable, and beyond taste (or the lack of it in film-fest jurors). Like all art, it must answer to its own and only imperative—to create with the best of one’s ability, beyond the blandishments of commerce; to reach for the stars, as Dee’s ghost says, and move beyond a mega-movie heaven guarded at the gates, as always, by “Ate Shawie. ”
Renato Santos is a retired banker, poet in Pilipino, and film enthusiast.