It’s always hard for me to give a critique of a Brillante Mendoza movie. Whatever he’s done defies the principles I hold dear as an avid moviegoer. I love the magic of film, and how it transports me to an alternative reality. I always surrender to a filmmaker’s machinations, suspend disbelief and lap up plot twists and surprises. I savor delicious writing, like Annie Hall’s: “A relationship, I think, is like a shark. You know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark.” I like leaving the theatre with a glow from a feel-good film, or obviously affected by a good thriller, drama or action piece.
I don’t get that from Mendoza. His writing is telegraphic. He’s less interested in the ending than the laborious exposition in the preceding 90 minutes. His work is all too real. Serbis made me sick from the stench of a rundown moviehouse that houses sex workers. I felt like I was part of a looong journey through the jungles of Mindanao in Captive; I could feel the sting from the bug bites that plagued Isabelle Huppert. In Thy Womb, he made me get into the skin of Shaleehah/Nora Aunor (in the greatest movie comeback – she’s almost as good as her Elsa). I felt for her – her unconditional love for husband Bangas-An, her struggles in a poor fishing village in Tawi-Tawi, her patience as a woman waiting for a woman to bear Bangas-An’s child.
There’s a precious scene in the movie where the couple and a Muslim matchmaker visit a town in search of a wife number 2. The woman happens to be out of town. Bangas-An wants to head home. Aunor prevails upon him to wait. So they sit on the platform on stilts. The beautiful framed shot lingers for a minute. So we wait with them. And experience the couple’s nth attempt at happiness.
In another scene, Aunor buys cassava in a palengke. On her way to back to the banca, a group of gun-toting soldiers suddenly come out of nowhere presumably in pursuit of a Muslim rebel and accidentally pushes her aside. She drops the kamote. She mentions nothing to her husband like it were a regular thing. Mendoza omits any further political discourse. You don’t see such restraint in most other Pinoy films.
It’s only when you become aware of Mendoza’s unwillingness to conform to our usual notions of “entertainment” that you get to appreciate his work. You’re not meant to enjoy his films; you admire them. Plot, chatter, frenetic editing, big scenes are not his foremost concerns. Nothing of consequence seems to happen. It’s like watching paint dry. The results, however, are intensely rich with the thoughts and emotions of characters that don’t belong to a parallel universe.
So should you see Thy Womb? Please do. This could be the last intelligent film that the Metro Manila Film Fest would ever show.