Sunday, December 20, 2009

Biyaya ng Lupa (1959, Manuel Silos)

Biyaya ng Lupa is my favorite local film and my pick for the best Filipino film of the twentieth century. Fifty years ago, this excellent LVN production premiered in theaters as a Christmas presentation. It was the third film of Rosa Rosal and Tony Santos to gain critical acclaim. The duo was earlier paired in the neorealist Anak Dalita and the sea adventure film Badjao.

There are lots of things to like in this agrarian melodrama. The film features Rosa Rosal at her best. The direction and screenplay are top-notch. The pacing is fast. And, the ensemble acting is one of the best I've seen in local cinema.

When I told my mother that I adore Rosa Rosal's performance in this movie, she countered that movie fans hated Rosal way back then. The sexy actress portrayed contravida roles so convincingly that she incurred the wrath of moviegoers. It is a good thing that the LVN head honcho gave her lead roles in the studio’s prestige movies. These roles showed her acting skills to the fullest. Biyaya ng Lupa nearly gave her the Best Actress Award at the Asian Film Festival. The film remains her favorite among all of her movies.

Rosa Rosal portrayed Maria, a provincial lass blissfully married to Jose (Tony Santos). They plant lansones seedlings all over their sprawling lot. They foresee the orchard as key to a bountiful future. Years later, the couple is blessed with children. Director Manuel Silos tracked the expansion of the family by showing the growth of the lansones from a mere seedling to a sapling until it grew into a mature tree. This brilliant device was a marked improvement over the stale ripping of calendar pages to show passage of time.

I love the briskness of the film. It felt like an adventure movie. The spare Bressonian-like editing tells the story efficiently by eliminating dull moments. The anxiety and excitement of expectant father Jose is captured in a thrilling manner. We see him running from one house to another. The rapid editing and lively music played a big part in making the scene effective.

The screenplay by Celso Al. Carunungan is chockfull of references to Biblical characters. The presence of the Blessed Virgin Mary is felt throughout the film. The matriarch is named Maria. Several interior scenes show the family's altar with the statue of the Blessed Virgin. Jose narrates the legend of the lansones. It was said that the fruit was poisonous. It took the intercession of Mother Mary to make the fruit edible.

The death of Maria’s daughter Carmen is only the beginning of a series of trials, not unlike those of Job. One after another the problems come cascading like a deluge. The flowering lansones trees fall prey to a typhoon. Maria’s other daughter Angelita is raped by Bruno, a neighborhood monster created by rumor-mongers and gossipers in Santa Monica. A vengeful Jose seeks out Bruno but is killed in return. Her son Arturo, lured by a city slicker, asks to advance his inheritance. The prodigal son, destitute and cheated out of his money, later comes home asking for forgiveness.

The direction by Silos is truly excellent although there are a few minor things that are dated or simply out-of-place. The kissing scenes are more correctly called sniffing scenes. Yes, the lead actors sniff one another in lieu of a buss. It is not as bad as what you think but it can elicit a chuckle or two. I’ve seen this film a countless of times but I still discern something new with every viewing. The latest thing I’ve unraveled is not a good one, though. It concerns a scene involving a repentant Miguel (Leroy Salvador). Holding a cross, the deaf-mute utters a prayer asking for forgiveness after a brutal beating of Bruno. Although it is true to the film’s Christian framework, the turnabout is so sudden. The scene also straddles the line of cloyingness. Other scenes involving Miguel are memorable, especially his courtship of Gloria. The latter, hilarious scenes beat any romance scenes in current local movies about deaf-mute people.

Other memorable scenes include Lito showing off, and eating from, a cluster of sweet-looking lansones; a carabao putting on a harness; and the classic ending showing Maria caressing a plow and grabbing a handful of soil. It is a perfect ending to a superb film screaming for a Criterion-like DVD or BluRay release.

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