Cinemalaya 2011: NIÑO Review
The Lopez-Aranda family has fallen far from grace. Gaspar (Tony Mabesa) was a promising statesman during his younger years but his political ambitions were thwarted by Ferdinand Marcos' sudden rise to power. Celia (Fides Cuyugan) was an opera star whose sudden marriage to an inutile man stalled her career.
The second generation didn't fare any better. Celia's daughter, Merced (Shamaine Buencamino), is unmarried and takes care of the affairs of the household. Her son, Mombic (Art Acuña), haunted by a failed marriage and business, is seeking employment abroad. Gaspar's only daughter, Raquel (Raquel Villavicencio), displaced from the Philippines for decades, has had three marriages. The third generation, represented by Reinhardt (Joaquin Valdez), Raquel's teenage son, and Antony (Jhiz Deocareza), Mombic's five year old son, bear the cudgels of their family's inevitable decay.
There is a reason why people are fascinated with ruins, despite the evident disrepair and decay. Ruins are permanent reminders of a distant glorious past. In Loy Arcenas' Niño, the Lopez-Aranda clan is portrayed with the same fascination, as if the family were ruins on display: the bits of opera that Celia sings to bedridden Gaspar with her aging soprano are the broken columns, the stories told by Gaspar of his blossoming political position are the damaged statues, and the rustic house, its remaining furniture and ornaments and the anecdotes of the loyal household help of the house's former prominence are the collapsed edifices, the wilted gardens, the burnt arcs, all of which are faint indications of the family's expired extravagance.
Do not be mistaken to think that Niño treats its characters plainly as mere objects of art, remnants of a faded legacy. The characters are very human. Their relations and entanglements with each other are grounded on uncomplicated emotions. Arcenas comprehends the allure of disgrace, the way it measures the extent of the family's sure decline. Arcenas punctuates desperation with class, moderates depravity with sensitivity, and adds levity to the very certain histrionics and melodramatics of the formerly privileged.
For a film by a first-time film director, Niño is a feat to behold. All the elements, from Lee Briones and Jay Abello's elegant cinematography, to the ensemble acting, to Jerrold Tarog's intelligently spare scoring, to Danny Añonuevo's very precise editing, are meshed together by Arcenas with expert precision. The film is marked with disciplined craftsmanship, a rare commodity in a filmmaking culture that has become too forgiving of lazy, careless and depthless technical work. The amazingly tight screenplay, concocted by playwright Rody Vera, is humorous without going overboard.
The film's accomplished climax, a final audacious attempt to grab onto whatever glory or dignity left, is the film's poignant crest. The very sight of the country's best opera singers together in their old age, belting out in voices that are fractions of what they used to be, is both absurd and wondrous. Yet after everything, when the music of the past has faded, when the momentary elation and heightened hope have been replaced by the very real notion that there are things that are meant to wither and that what remains are only echoes and shadows from an era and a family's sunken splendor.
(Cross-published in Lessons from the School of Inattention.)