Marilou Diaz-Abaya's In the Navel of the Sea was so expensive to make that the money steals the film's magic realism. Many strong actors such as Elizabeth Oropesa and Pen Medina just seem drowned out. Noel Vera holds his breath.


Marilou Diaz-Abaya's Sa Pusod Ng Dagat (In The Navel Of The Sea) is being given the full treatment by GMA Studios: movie trailers, TV spots, radio ads, print ads, press releases, the works. You can't help but sympathize with their position, with the faint whiff of desperation that hangs, like a shroud, over the entire proceedings. It's a simple enough position, summed up in so many words: "We have a P17-million movie without Rosanna Roces." The arithmetic is simple: the movie has to make P50 million to break even (two-thirds goes to theaters and to the government). Initial public response, as far as I can see, has been lukewarm.

It might have helped if something had resulted from that P17 million GMA Studios had just spent, but the movie is, if anything, even more lukewarm than the public.

To its credit, the film begins with a beautiful credit sequence: a sea-blue expanse with the words Pusod Ng Dagat in bright gold. A drop falls on the screen, causing rings of water to swell outwards, breaking up the golden words and replacing them with new ones. It's a lovely sequence, one of the best and most poetic uses of computer animation I've seen in a Filipino film; if this had been used to sell a brand of soap or shampoo, I would have bought the product immediately.

Then the movie begins: over serene, New Age music, we hear someone telling his life's story, the words dripping with nostalgia. If you have sharp ears, you might hear something else over the digitally orchestrated soundtrack - the sound of the audience's spirit, sinking into its shoes. Some of the hoariest European films use first-person narration as a way of injecting instant lyricism: think My Life As A Dog. There are American films, wanting to be European in style or spirit, which like to ape the convention - think Now and Then, or How To Make An American Quilt. First-person narration isn't always reprehensible - The Tin Drum begins with Oskar narrating his life's story even before he's born - but you shouldn't rely on the device to do all your work for you (as Drum refuses to do); you should have a story - a real story - to tell.

Pusod's narrator works overtime. When a girl character is introduced, we're told that she's wild, and full of mystery; when the protagonist (Jomari Yllana) receives an omen and believes his luck will change, we're informed that he's wrong. The narrator is such an authoritative, interfering busybody you want to yell at him to shut up. Learning in the end that the narrator is actually Yllana, after the passage of many years, you can't help but nod off from the total lack of surprise; that cliché has been around, in theater and literature and film, for so long it should be celebrating its own centennial.

The film is about the only son (Yllana) of the midwife (Elizabeth Oropesa) of a small seaside town; an interesting concept, but you quickly lose interest. Yllana is given the midwife position early on, but nothing much is made of it; Yllana holds some early reservations about being right for the job but a few scenes later, he's pulling babies out of birth canals as if he'd been doing it all his life. It might have been more reasonable to have him make a few mistakes - drop a baby or two - but that doesn't seem to be on Diaz-Abaya's agenda; it might have been reasonable to suppose a husband would put up at least token resistance to the idea that some man will root about in his wife's private parts, but nothing of the sort happens. The people of the village, in fact, are as blasé about the turn in sex roles as the most sophisticated New Yorker. You wonder what was the point of making the midwife male in the first place.

There are a few subplots, and some touches of "magic realism." Yllana's mother (Oropesa) is having an affair with a married man (Pen Medina); when he gets her pregnant, you expect the whole scandalous affair to blow up, lots of drama, declamation, etc., etc. It doesn't; the local shaman (the late Rolando Tinio, doing his wise-old-man shtick) explains it all away as a case of supernatural causes, and the townspeople don't even blink. Granted, provincial people are considered ignorant (they aren't, but the filmmakers don't seem to know that); granted Tinio looks and sounds endearingly knowledgeable about such things; couldn't someone have pointed at Oropesa and shouted "adulterer!" before being punted aside? The people of this village are not only sophisticated about sexual roles, they achieve remarkably close consensus on what they choose to believe in. Either that, or no one has bothered to give them individual characters to play.

Diaz-Abaya used to do riveting urban dramas like Brutal and Moral (she's more successful depicting the middle-class milieu of Moral). Now she's into South American-style magic realism, and she doesn't have the feel for it. When she has a snake come out of a woman's vagina, or a mermaid peek out of the ocean waves, or Yllana suffer the pain of voodoo, she gets the realistic part all right - the scenes are convincingly staged - but there's no magic to them (which sounds paradoxical, but so is the term "magic realism").

A filmmaker like Eliseo Subiela will have a man float in the air, but the man doesn't just float for no reason at all; he floats because he's making love, and levitation is an expression of his exuberance. In Alfonso Arau's Like Water For Chocolate (which Pusod resembles), the heroine feels happy or despairing, and she influences the people who eat her food accordingly. Even our own Celso Ad. Castillo is capable of coming up with a genuine moment: his Lihim Ng Madonna was a mess, but for the film's climax he has Sunshine Cruz, in a fit of self-destructive despair, levitate into the air.

Each of these filmmakers weave fantastic images into their films to heighten the drama, the emotions their characters are experiencing. By comparison, the "magic realist" moments in Pusod seem more like glued-on afterthoughts; they're dropped into the middle of the scene then thrown out, without follow-through or comment.

Aside from the more-than-coincidental resemblance to Like Water For Chocolate, Diaz-Abaya has also given the picture a European art-film feel; her small seaside town with its inhabitants and their interlocking stories recalls small-town movies like Federico Fellini's Amarcord, with a dash of "mother-nature mysticism" by way of Ishmael Bernal's Nunal Sa Tubig (Speck In The Water - note the similarity to the titles - and which, come to think of it, also starred Elizabeth Oropesa). Unlike Nunal or Amarcord, there's nothing authentic or even particularly vivid about Pusod's characters: they float into the picture, have a philosophic moment or two, then float right out again. Perhaps the characters aren't real because the look of the film isn't real: the whole thing was shot on location, but somehow Diaz-Abaya is able to make the place look like a set out of South Pacific (you expect women in grass skirts to come out of the huts at any moment, dancing the hula).

It doesn't help that the actors playing Pusod's characters are less than stellar. People like Pen Medina and Elizabeth Oropesa do admirable work as the town midwife and her married lover, though the film hardly does justice to Oropesa's beauty. (Diaz-Abaya has given La Oropesa major roles in two of her films - this, and Ipaglaban Mo - both times managing to make her look stout and matronly). Chin-chin Gutierrez and Jomari Yllana, however, hardly make any impression at all. To her credit, Diaz-Abaya scales Yllana's monumental self-regard down to merely irritating, and she's gotten an almost entirely neurosis-free performance from Gutierrez. But the results are hardly an improvement: Yllana without his hilarious overconfidence and Gutierrez without her emotional pratfalls make for dull watching onscreen - at least they were entertaining when they were awful.

Diaz-Abaya isn't a bad director - her Brutal and Moral are vivid statements on feminism (though they worked best when they weren't being statements, only dramas), and her May Nagmamahal Sa Iyo (Madonna And Child) is winning soap opera. The scriptwriter, Jun Lana, presumably isn't a bad writer; his screenplay won a Palanca Award. They just seem to be working out of their depths - she, on a more intuitive and experimental style of filmmaking; he, on a more visual medium.

I can hardly think of what to say to Diaz-Abaya - trust her instincts, her imagination, her sources of inspiration more? Either you have it or you don't. Hopefully Diaz-Abaya just has trouble finding out if she has it; she should do better on her P120 million Rizal, which, by comparison, is a straightforward project. Lana seems easier to advise: cut out the first-person narrative, and remember a film is seen, not read.

And try not to do something like this on a budget this size. When a film costing P17 million flops (if it flops), it's that much harder to convince studios to try something different the next time around. Curacha tried something different, but took less money doing it; also, it had Rosanna Roces. Never mind that Curacha was dull, self-indulgent and incoherent; at P13 million, the film actually looks more impressive than Pusod - you have a tank, a ship, some expensively (if poorly) staged crowd scenes. And with Roces's artificially inflated breasts and pubic hair to sell the picture, it made plenty of money.

But I'm being nihilistic and cynical. I suppose I should wish Pusod well (it's too expensive to do otherwise). I only wish it was better.

Note: Businessworld, June 26, 1998. The article also appears in Noel Vera's Critic After Dark: A Review Of Philippine Cinema (BigO Books).
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