Friday, February 25, 2011

Sisa (1951, Gerardo de Leon)

2011 is the year we celebrate the 400th anniversary of the foundation of the University of Santo Tomas and the 150th birth anniversary of Jose Rizal, an illustrious Thomasian. The year also marks the 60th anniversary of the screening of Sisa, an enduring masterpiece by Thomasian Gerry de Leon.

The classic film presents the background story of one of Rizal’s more prominent characters, Sisa. The sultry young lady is courted by four young men. One of them marries her and eventually sires two children. Another suitor takes away the life from her husband. The third one murders her child. The last one brings hope to the remaining child.

The black-and-white film contains most of the signature shots of de Leon. The first shot is a memorable close-up image of a smiling Sisa enthralled by the singing of Maria Clara. Near the end of the film is an equally memorable shot of a dark shadow cast against the walls of the bell tower.

In between the memorable iconic shots are samples of de Leon’s masterful mise-en-scene compositions. An excellent example is a beautifully framed shot showing a glowing lamp in the foreground with people on the background. Their pensive faces fill in the four corners of the shot. They speak one after the other in counterclockwise fashion. They are all wishing to be enlightened on the dark past of Sisa. Their curious faces highlight the importance of the illuminating information that will be unveiled.

The main theme of the film is enlightenment or lumina pandit. Most of the evil deeds in the film are done in dark, secluded places. These hideous acts and their perpetrators are later revealed and unmasked in broad daylight or in a well-lit room.

Scriptwriter Teodorico Santos seamlessly blended his wonderful background story of Sisa with segments from Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere. Amongst her four suitors, Sisa chooses and marries Pedring. A jealous guardia civil named Antonio arrests and keeps Pedring in a cell full of lepers. When he is eventually released, he is no longer the same.

Another spurned suitor, Sakristan Mayor Baldo, takes revenge by bringing trumped-up charges of theft against Sisa’s son, Crispin. In a fit of outrage, he beats the boy to his death in the bell tower. He then throws the corpse in a river.

An idealistic young man named Crisostomo Ibarra takes pity on the marginalized couple, a leprous man and a crazed woman. More than any other film, Sisa is probably the main inspiration for Mario O’Hara’s script Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang. The latter also has a young man caring for his small town’s main outcasts, a male leper and a pregnant mad woman.

The fourth suitor, Elias, is a faithful admirer of Sisa. He is instrumental in helping Ibarra to evade the vicious authorities. He brings hope to the surviving child named Basilio by showing him the hidden treasures and briefly reuniting him with her dying mother.

Padre Salvi and Donya Consolacion, the inglorious bastards from the book Noli, also make their appearances in the film. However, Padre Salvi is barely seen as the celebrant in Sisa and Pedring’s wedding.

Donya Consolacion is in her all-out villainous mode. She utilizes her being the wife of the alferez to break up the party hosted by Ibarra. She hates the fact that she was not invited at all to the party. Another scene shows the Donya ordering the household helpers to close the window because she can’t stand the noise coming from a religious procession outside. She becomes even more furious when she hears Sisa singing. With a whip in hand, she orders Sisa to sing and dance for her. Then, she whips her until the crazed woman escapes from her clutches.

The film Sisa has a hypnotic grip on viewers. Anita Linda is simply amazing in an award-winning performance as the crazed title character. The story-telling is tight and well-paced. However, the climactic ending seems rushed. It is basically a CliffsNotes summary of the latter part of Noli Me Tangere. The sudden change in pace left me wondering whether some parts are still missing. Is there a director's cut somewhere?

The digitalized copy of the film is not in good condition. The images are chopped in the right and bottom sides. The audio is not clear enough and sometimes muffled. I had a hard time deciphering the name of Sisa’s husband. I’m not even sure if it is really Pedring. It sounds like Peding or Peping.

I’m still thankful, though, that I saw one of the best works of National Artist for Film, Gerardo de Leon. This film was definitely the highlight of the UP Diliman run of Cinemalaya 2008. I hope Cinemalaya 2011 has a section for films about Jose Rizal, his works, and his characters. Will we finally see a copy of Gerardo de Leon’s El Filibusterismo? The epic film was scheduled for screening decades ago but the screening was unfortunately scrapped. Is a print really existing or should we just be contented playing the film in our minds?

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