I started my year quite right by watching the only movie worth watching in the MMFF, ‘Thy Womb’, which is of course starred by the only superstar, Nora Aunor, and directed by Brilliante Mendoza, both winners of international festivals where this movie was showcased.
I tried recalling if I have ever watched any movie of La Aunor in a moviehouse and I realized that this is only the 2nd that I did, the first being Flor Contemplacion.
H and I have read numerous reviews of the movie and the generally positive review has convinced me to watch the movie. Several online searches revealed that Thy Womb is only shown to at most 10 cinemas in the Metro, fortunately with the one being very near my workplace.
The movie tells the story of a Badjao couple, Shaleha (Aunor) and her husband Bangas-an, played by the equally great Bembol Roco. Despite their advanced age the couple have failed to have children. Shaleha, a traditional birth attendant, has to be reminded constantly of her own failure of bearing a child by keeping the umbilical cords of the babies she delivered, hanging them by a special corner of their house, a small shanty on the Badjao Village in Bongao, Tawi-tawi.
The frustration and desire for a child has led to Bangas-an to convince her wife that he should take on a second wife, (later played by a bland Lovi Poe) a tradition accepted in the Muslim faith. Shaleha, loyal and loving wife, has no choice but to agree, and starts on a quest to find the wife for her husband.
The next scenes reveal to the audience the simple yet complex Badjao-Muslim tradition and way of life, of how the people can be poor and yet manage to pool money for dowries worth hundreds of thousands, of the the lavish ceremonies celebrated despite gunfires shooting from a distance, of lives flourishing despite odds and conflicts. Mendoza, in his style of story-telling that makes you think you are watching a documentary instead of a feature film, gives the audience a glimpse of the life in the islands. Its beauty against poverty. We see the juxtaposition of the catholic chapel and the muslim mosque, reminding us that in these islands, christianity is a weakened, ignored force. The picturesque, wide-angled shots of the Tawi-tawi landscape and the sea reminds us of its pristine beauty but then we are also subtly reminded of the conflicts; of pirates stealing even meager pieces of fish caught by Shaleha and bangas-an, of military personnel chasing unseen bandits.
This style went on for most part of the film. While H and I couldn’t complain, I could imagine other viewers exasperated to the point of being bored. I can’t blame them if they’ve been waiting for some action to happen. The only conflict, revealed by Mersila, Lovi Poe’s character, is simple yet it would turn the old couple’s life around. Mendoza, however, has prepared his audience for this moment. We no longer question the logic of their tradition. We only eagerly await what happens next.
But the brilliant (pun intended) Mendoza did not craft some run-of-the mill drama of wives and mistresses. You will not see ‘sampalan’ anyhere in this film. You may question how the arresting beauty of Mersila would accept a wedding with an aging Bangas-an but as she reveals her ‘requirement’ for the wedding to continue, her beauty and desirability made sense. The next few seconds after the reveal managed to be gut-wrenchingly painful by the mere sight of Nora Aunor’s eye-acting.
Ah, Nora’s eyes. She may have lost all the glamour, she may have aged and botched her plastic surgery which affected her golden voice (a mystery if you ask me), but those eyes could tell everything inside Shaleha’s conflicted heart. The satisfaction of a completed task, the happiness in holding a new-born and the subsequent desire to have it for her own, the confusion, pain and acceptance rolled into one expression when she realized that what she found for her husband would be worth more than the 150 thousand peso dowry and their married life. No words, just those amazing eyes.
I would have preferred a more dramatic ending to the story. Just a few seconds longer would have made a huge difference, but in Brilliante Mendoza’s mind, the ending where exchanged looks said everything, I should no longer complain.