In Virgin People, director Celso Ad. Castillo gives the Garden of Eden another stab. But the downfall comes just as quickly. No one resists temptation for long and even Castillo himself is tempted to repeat himself. Noel Vera keeps his sainthood...

Virgin People is the second time Celso Ad. Castillo is repeating himself. The first, Ang Pinakamagandang Hayop sa Balat ng Lupa (The Most Beautiful Creature On The Face Of The Earth), was a lot of cotton fabric dipped in seawater (read: wet T-shirts). With a smaller scope and a concentrated story, Castillo succeeds in expressing his personal style more freely, resulting in a better film. Somewhat.

Three sisters live in a paradise where men are metaphorically and literally serpents of temptation. Their father (Ronaldo Valdez) takes his three daughters deep into the woods, far from the nearest town. He dies, leaving the girls educated enough to read from the Bible, ignorant enough to allow men to take advantage of them. One of them is molested, the other raped.

When Tonton Gutierrez arrives, the girls go gaga. They bed with him one by one, in a round-a-lay similar to the one in Belle Epoque (a singularly unimaginative comedy that stole the idea elsewhere). Gutierrez falls in love with Cruz; both plan to marry, except that Gutierrez is a criminal, his conscience is bothering him and he wants to atone for his sins, so he heads for town. One of the sisters becomes insanely jealous. She kills him, then goes after her sister with a machete. Before she can kill, she’s struck down by one of the poorest excuses for a lightning bolt I’ve ever seen, more an act of desperation on the part of the filmmaker than an act of God. For the film’s length, a lot of nipples are exposed, a lot of flesh caressed, a lot of lines from the Bible spoken aloud in the approved Born-Again manner.

Which is pretty much the movie, except that Castillo, even with hack jobs, even with carelessly thrown-together projects like this, still likes to remind you of how great he could be. There are moments when he achieves a combination of music and imagery that’s almost Biblical in intensity. Landscapes of stunning beauty are lit by sunbeams, the sun itself hidden by low, angry clouds. Worms curl silently round the edges of leaves and flower petals, echoing in miniature what God with his landscapes has writ large. Castillo (God?) is given enormous help by Joey Ayala’s lovely, lovely music — sad, tender melodies that seem to issue from instruments of grass and bamboo.

Castillo’s vision — what we can see of it — is destroyed by a haphazard script that doesn’t know what to do with its one or two interesting ideas. Gutierrez’s Adam/Satan is the most intriguing character — Castillo’s ambivalent feelings of sympathy and horror towards Gutierrez add to his fascination, but Gutierrez has neither the charisma nor the sensuality to play any kind of Adam, much less a Satan, so he remains merely intriguing.

Sunshine Cruz gives the best performance of the sisters, but Sharmaine Suarez’s role is the most complex, the sister seething with jealousy and hate. Poor Suarez doesn’t seem to have the emotional depth for the violent, Bible-spouting climax — but I remember her totally believable performance in Nena, and have to chalk this one up as another failure of the script, possibly of her direction.

Is Castillo a great director, or a great pretender? Does he, God forbid, actually mean what he says in these films? Is this the best we can expect from him? It’s about time he stopped being coy, and stepped out under the spotlight onstage; about time that he, like his starlets, took it all off, and showed us what he’s really got.

Note: Manila Chronicle, April 22, 1996. The article also appears in Noel Vera's Critic After Dark: A Review Of Philippine Cinema (BigO Books).
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