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A stirring musical drama set on the eve of World War II in Manila and centered on the cash-strapped spinster daughters of a famous old painter, “The Portrait” proves a handsomely produced big-screen adaptation of Nick Joaquin’s revered play “A Portrait of the Artist as a Filipino,” featuring classy melodrama and terrific tunes performed by a dream cast including West End star Joanna Ampil. A universally accessible tale about art, money, family conflict, national identity and female emancipation, “The Portrait” should be embraced by mature audiences but may not pack enough modern razzle-dazzle filmmaking technique to entice a critical mass of younger viewers. Domestic release details are pending. Festival programmers should check it out.
Written in English and first performed in 1955, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Filipino” has been a fixture on local stages ever since. This Tagalog translation directed by Loy Arcenas (“Nino”) springs from the 1997 musical interpretation starring Celeste Legaspi, who also appears here in a supporting role and serves as a producer.
As with most good musicals, “The Portrait” hooks viewers with an opening number that poetically establishes its physical and emotional terrain. In this case it’s a beautiful recording of Legaspi singing “Intramuros,” a hymn for the historic center of Manila that was built during Spanish colonial times and mostly destroyed in the Battle of Manila in 1945. As lyrics describe the locality’s importance in Filipino cultural and intellectual life, the film’s images switch from scratchy black-and-white archival footage to muted colors inside the Intramuros house of unmarried, middle-aged sisters Paula (Rachel Alejandro) and Candida Marasigan (Ampil).
Compact passages of spoken dialogue and an invigorating mix of musical styles ranging from operetta to jaunty jazz-flavored tunes and soulful ballads relay the tale of how Paula and Candida have fallen on hard times. Their adored father, Don Lorenzo, a celebrated painter and party host, has not produced or sold anything in years. When young journalist Bitoy (Sandino Martin) calls on Paula and Candida, he’s told Don Lorenzo is confined to his room while recovering from a bad fall. Local gossip suggests he may have passed away.
Faced with crippling bills, the sisters have taken in a lodger, Tony Javier (Paulo Avelino), a dissolute piano player who hangs around with floozies Susan (Cris Villonco) and Violet (Aicelle Santos). To make matters worse, Paula and Candida’s selfish older brother, Manolo (Nonie Buencamino), and their haughty sister, Pepang (Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo), have abandoned all emotional and financial responsibility for the family.
Rolando Tinio’s lyrics and Ryan Cayabyab’s music create a highly effective atmosphere of doom, gloom and family turmoil before offering a ray of light. It turns out Don Lorenzo has in fact produced one, possibly final, painting. Titled “Portrait of the Filipino” — and never seen by viewers — it depicts mythological hero Aeneas carrying his father Anchises from the ruins of Troy.
Themes of art, beauty, loyalty and greed are vividly examined as friends and relatives gather to view the masterpiece and give their views on what should be done with it. For socialites Dona Loleng (Legaspi) and Elsa Montes (Zsa Zsa Padilla), it’s just another painting. Manolo and Pepang have already banked the price it might fetch. Tony Javier has found a buyer and cynically begins seducing Paula to seal the sale. On the other side of the equation is politician Don Perico (Robert Averalo), a former poet who abandoned his art for personal gain. His conscience has been profoundly affected by the portrait.
But no one speaks and sings more eloquently than Paula and Candida. Ampil and Alejandro’s voices and performances soar as the sisters resist the temptation of a quick fix in the belief that their father’s work represents something far more valuable than money.
Apart from a few draggy moments in which Paula and Candida’s parlous financial position is unnecessarily restated, this impeccably performed and crisply photographed tuner zips along nicely toward its highly emotional and tremendously satisfying finale. Clearly made with the utmost love and care, “The Portrait” is beautifully decorated and top-notch in every technical detail.
The last thing anyone would expect in a film about a struggling deaf-mute family facing foreclosure on their apartment is for the mother to decide that murder is the one and only solution. But that’s precisely the case in “Sveta,” a truly disturbing and utterly compelling social horror movie by Kazakh filmmaker Zhanna Issabayeva (“Nagima”). Performed almost exclusively in Russian sign language and featuring a remarkable lead performance by non-professional Laura Koroleva, “Sveta” is bound to make a name for itself on the festival circuit and could possibly find theatrical life with the support of brave distributors.
The inspired casting of Koroleva, whom Issabayeve discovered working in a center for the disabled, plays a vital role in keeping viewers engaged in an unrelentingly bleak story set in a world where human kindness is an extremely scarce commodity. With her striking face and a death stare of almost other-worldly intensity, Sveta’s virtually impossible not to watch, no matter how appalling her actions become. (RTRS)
A foreman at a garment factory staffed by hearing-impaired workers, Sveta is visited by a bank representative and learns through her interpreter (Nataliya Kolesnikova) that she has two weeks to pay mortgage arrears or lose her apartment. Worse news soon follows. The factory manager (Alim Mendybayev) announces that 12 workers and one foreman will be laid off owing to a downturn in business. Despite being the most skilled and qualified member on staff, Sveta loses her job because single mother Valya (Varvara Masyagina) is deemed to be in greater need of the pay check.
Sveta’s fury at the decision and utter contempt for Valya’s situation is just a hint of what’s to come. After she storms out of the factory wearing a low-cut dress and stands on the side of the road it appears Sveta has decided to become a worker. Here, and everywhere else, such expectations are subverted. After hailing a taxi, she locates Valya, smashes her head with a rock and calmly steals her money.
Sveta’s ruthless nature extends to the family home. She berates deaf-mute husband, Ruslan (Roman Lystsov), for being weak and ineffectual. The absence of any love between them is clear, but what’s really confronting is Sveta’s attitude toward raising their young son and daughter, also deaf-mutes. “No tenderness,” she barks at Ruslan, as if the slightest compassion might make them weak in a world Sveta views as being only cruel and unjust.
After being re-hired to replace the dying Valya and carrying on as if nothing happened, Sveta sets her sights on guaranteeing her family’s financial security. This time around, she enlists Ruslan to poison his 92-year-old grandmother, thus inheriting her apartment. Sveta may not cry for the death of anyone, but many viewers may shed a tear when Marina (Polina Lungu), the now-orphaned little daughter of Valya, is thrust into Sveta’s care in the film’s devastating final act.
The ice in Sveta’s veins is matched by Issabayeva’s uncompromising screenplay and razor-sharp direction. It’s not until more than an hour has elapsed before Sveta offers a half-smile, and viewers will have to wait until the very final sequence to discover at least something about what makes her cold and calculating mind tick.
Performances from a cast comprised entirely of non-professionals are excellent. The film’s standout technical asset is Mikhail Blintsov’s mobile camera, which frequently films Sveta from directly behind and over her shoulder, making viewers feel like they’re accompanying this immoral creature on her terrible mission of survival at any cost. (RTRS)
By Richard Kuipers