MOVIE REVIEW: Technique and style leave message and drama out in the dark

Community Opinion & Analysis Sep 29, 2017 at 2:50 pm
A scene from the movie Madilim and Gabi (Dark is the Night) with Phillip Salvador and Gina Alajar.

A scene from the movie Madilim and Gabi (Dark is the Night) with Phillip Salvador and Gina Alajar.

By Petronila G. Cleto

(Warning: Story spoilers abound – Ed.)

When Toronto TIFF film aficionados learned what darkness this film by Adolfo Alix, Jr. was going to tackle – extra-judicial killings or “EJKs” in the drug war – what expectations did they have of a film that has had to pass the Manila censors? Myself, a non-aficionado for years, but simply knowing that Duterte has declared Martial Law in Mindanao, and has threatened to make Martial Law nationwide had almost no expectations about it.

The police involvement in drugs was clear in the film, and so were the various ways the bigger drug lords protected themselves from the law and from their small or big time dealers, as well as from the police – which either meant they asked some of their underlings to kill some otherlings whom they had lost trust in, or whom they suspected of reporting them to other bigger drug lords.

The makers of this film wanted it to be courageous and sincere in bringing this truth out to the people. However, why the lack of creativity in the film, such as, the use of literary symbols to somehow protect it from censors? It was all there clearly put out like a modestly laid out documentary without much drama or innuendos of the critical sort, and the kind of emotional drama which only came out at the very end of the film.

From the first scene, the interior of a house, where we have the family and friends of small drug dealers having a birthday celebration, which seems to be just another ordinary scene of birthdays, we are abruptly taken into a scene of chaos as gunshots are heard, police are chasing and shooting people, and we see the surrounding community of poor city dwellers in a slum area. Later, as we go through the slums, which are shot without much characterization, we discover we are already in nostalgia, wanting to see the generous drama which Brocka’s films can give the slightest slat or tin on slumhouses, and not finding it. We also begin to wonder about the shots Alix’s film have about the characters in his tale – the actors whose faces were eloquent in many a Brocka film: Alajar, Salvador, Roco, Oropesa. They are almost devoid of any emotion or even an effort at emotional expression. If Alix has chosen characterization of poor people who are victims of the drug trade, did he choose these versatile actors of Brocka precisely to show dumbness? We can not be sure, from the lack of precise character developments in the whole film.

Though, of course, the dumbness is also shown in the actions of Alajar, who, though she hesitates, and does so again when she confronts her underling drug dealer, automatically decides to kill this drug dealer just on the chance that this might make her boss, and other higher-ups, to spare her missing son. It’s another proof of dehumanized behavior.

However, the strongest facial expression we get to experience in close-up or even in medium shots, is the fiercely animal-like expression of Bembol Roco as the police chief in connivance with the “Kidlat”, Alajar’s boss. In fact, in every scene where he makes an appearance, Roco’s whole body and facial expression enacts the character of fierceness, becoming the very symbol of darkness.

So far, then, our clues about the method of characterization here are dumbness and animalistic fierceness, which seem to be leading us to a message about what this war on drugs has done on the people in the slums, and especially to those involved in the drug trade. We know that dehumanization of people is a result of drug consumption.

But before the final scene, what about the dehumanization of the rest of the community? Brocka and Bernal both picked up from time to time in their films about the poor, some faces that would stand out and echo the messages they have given mainly to their main characters.

Noticeable as the lack of portraying the common dehumanization in this film, it also then fails to connect the very poverty of the characters to the crime of dehumanization created by a failed economy, which depends more on the remittances of migrant workers, than on what should have been ensured by government: the growth of healthy local industries and the protection of lands for its people. Nothing of that is here, which could have been evoked by any reference to the recently killed and tortured young men whose mothers were migrant workers.

A very small visual effort to generalize dehumanization is the use of shadows of prison bars, or what may be described as transparent bars, on some scenes where there are many people. The bars are too transparent to deliver the message well. Again, relying on the techniques of the camera fails to carry the message.

We only see youth helpless and, when dead, just stacked up like used-up animals– killed for no reason and makes us think they have lived for no reason. And yet, because even this angle of the story is not developed, just as the characterization of major characters is not, it is plunged into darkness.

We are left to imagine and think the darkness and the drama, rather than see and feel it.

So, after all the undramatic scenes, at last, when the son was delivered to them, wrapped up and rolled in the usual death cocoon of paper and plastic tape and a placard declaring him to be an addict, which he actually was, only here does a piece of drama spurt out. Here, suddenly, was Gina Alajar crying her best, seemingly to recall the ending of Lino Brocka’s film where she was also crying over the dying body of Philip Salvador, her husband, who was finally shot by police because he had robbed his employer of the money he needed to pay for Gina’s hospitalization expenses. In this film, Philip is beside her, also grieving, but there is no atmosphere to support either of them. Can Gina finally deliver the message?

She denounces the killers as “hayop”, animal, and it is of course quite ironic, because she is seemingly not aware she had also killed, like them. Whether or not that piece of irony, which could also be thrown at so many other Filipinos or moviegoers, is sufficient for a moviegoer to say that the ending scene makes up for all that is lacked in the film: drama, characterization, atmosphere, exploration of the existence and proliferation of drugs in poor communities, and the connection the drug trade has to a poor, mismanaged economy – that wise judgment must be left to each and everyone.

Or is it darker than that? What helped the producers to wiggle this film through the censors in Manila– everybody dazzled by the prospect of getting millions from the expected crowds of Filipinos who would pay to see old character actors who were heartthrobs in their day, like main stars Gina Alajar, Philip Salvador, Bembol Roco – all connected to one of Manila’s great directors, Lino Brocka? Or was the attempt at the Lino Brocka style what they really counted on?

Or even darker? Is Duterte giving up on his war against drugs under orders from “higher-ups”, so he can declare Martial Law all over the country, and ultimately, the impunity of dark criminals can go on, and gets things to darkest? And so, therefore, is drama in the film art becoming – or is it already – no longer appropriate?