As much as history is doomed to be forgotten, there will be brave attempts such as Chito Rono's Dekada '70 (The '70s Decade) which chronicles the horrific martial law era (1972-86) of the Philippines' dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Critic Noel Vera is moved by the ensemble cast headed by screen legends Vilma Santos and Christopher De Leon.



THE ASIAN VALUES DVD REVIEW

Chito Rono’s long-awaited adaptation of Lualhati Bautista’s classic novel, Dekada ’70 (Decade ’70), finally comes to us, after years in production and as many tens of millions of pesos spent in recreating the period, and the question on everybody’s mind is: is it worth the wait? Is it worth the millions? The novel, about a family that lived through the tumultuous ’70s including the declaration of Martial Law and the time of terror that followed, was narrated and dominated by Amanda Bartolome (portrayed in the film by Vilma Santos) - it was her story, and no one else’s.

The film, in casting Christopher de Leon as Julian Bartolome, Amanda’s husband, radically shifted the story’s focus away from Amanda. The novel’s Julian was a non-entity; de Leon being de Leon, however, would naturally demand as much screen time and emphasis as Santos. Equally radical is the greater emphasis placed on the character of Jules (Piolo Pascual), the eldest son. His story as an officer in the Communist Party of the Philippines and later political prisoner actually takes over the middle of the film, and puts him on equal footing, in terms of focus and screen time, with both mother and father.

The net effect of all this, and of Rono and Star Cinema’s overall approach is to create a broader, more complex, far less focused narrative. "Dekada" the novel was as tight and coherent and elegantly structured as a screenplay for a novel; Dekada the film breaks up the novel into a series of vignettes, with possibly a linking visual leitmotif (the bougainvillea in the Bartolome’s front fence?). Dekada the novel is an intense, emotionally charged read; Dekada the film is ultimately moving, but only after a lengthy struggle, and a slog through not a few dull spots.

Rono, Bautista (in adapting her novel) and Star Cinema opt for the epic approach, and you wonder if it’s worth the effort. We get Ana Capri, Tirso Cruz III and Kris Aquino, among others, filling in supporting roles (Aquino’s scenes are mercifully short, mostly in long shot, and noticeably dubbed; Capri is good as always, even with minimal lines of dialogue). We get huge shots of rallies and demonstrations (one of them, I suspect, digitally enhanced).

We get overproduced set designs (the Bartolomes seem a whole lot wealthier than they should be as an ordinary middle-class family). We get Important Film pacing, and sententious Epic Production music. We get arty camerawork, especially during the torture scenes (the blood is impeccably production-designed), and scenes where the Bartolomes look for their missing son in various police stations (think Federico Fellini directing Serpico). Rono is a classy visual stylist but no Brocka, who can capture the stink of the streets with a single shot.


The sons acquit themselves well enough... with the pointed exception of Jason (Danilo Barrios), who’s irritatingly glib for most of the movie, then suddenly figures in one of the film’s crucial turning points, for no other apparent reason than that he was refused permission to date on Christmas Eve. Piolo Pascual is puppy-dog pretty and about as cheerful, but as his story of imprisonment and torture progresses, the cheerfulness starts looking less shallow and more heroic.

I had a problem with his reunion scenes, where he tells his family stories about his interrogations - would a political prisoner be so lighthearted about his horrific experiences? I understand the scene was conceived as being like any reunion with a long-lost family member, and Pascual being as cutely proud as any child out on adventure... I can see the irony in such a scene, appreciate the attempt, and still be unhappy with the final execution. Overall though, he is a solid, supportive presence, and he carries the burden of being third lead in an epic with becoming grace.

I’ve mentioned Christopher de Leon’s role as husband and father... and here is where I tend to disagree with critics: the film cannot be 100 per cent faithful to the novel; it has its own priorities to attend to. A nonentity Julian isn’t necessarily an improvement over Julian as Bautista reimagines him for the big screen; as played by de Leon, he’s a larger-scaled, more formidable opponent (which is what he is) for Amanda - self-centered, satisfied, full of his own sense of importance, yet possessed of enormous charm, and not entirely unsympathetic.

Vilma Santos as Amanda is the linchpin upon which the film turns and, in the opening scenes, she doesn’t so much dominate as she does sort of fade away to one corner - which was exactly what the role needed, I felt. Santos banks her usual superwoman charisma here; she plays Amanda not as Santos the movie star or as an award-winning role, but as the film needs: a not-so-smart woman with little knowledge of what’s going on and little opportunity of finding out, hoping for and fearing for her several wayward children. It’s her eventual realization of the limits of the box into which her life fits that is the true action of the film - a bit militant-feminist in outline, perhaps, but persuasively and even movingly done on the big screen.

Santos displays precise control throughout the film, far better than in her previous collaboration with Rono and Bautista, the hugely overrated Bata, Bata, Paano Ka Ba Ginawa? (Lea’s Story, 1999). Nevertheless, the quiet scenes where Santos speaks little yet says everything with her eyes made me think: this would be perfect for Nora Aunor, who’d been offered the role (she asked for too much), perhaps with someone less mestizo (Pen Medina?) as husband, and unknowns for sons. Dekada ’70 actually doesn’t seem to be a project that lives or dies on star power, what with its classic status, large budget, and powerful TV station for promotional backing; it could have taken more risks in terms of the cast. Santos does well enough - is, in fact, quite good - but Aunor would have hit it right out of the ball park.

Dekada is, as mentioned, far better than Rono and Bautista’s previous collaboration, Bata, Bata - that one was essentially a ’70s novel filmed as present-day drama, and believability was the first casualty of the resulting time-warp. The film isn’t as likeable, however, as Rono’s La Vida Rosa, where (thanks to Armando Lao’s script) Rosanna Roces and an excellent cast are allowed to breath and create their own fateful little world. It isn’t as taut as Eskapo, which (thanks to Pete Lacaba’s script) is reasonably exciting, and is still probably Rono’s best to date.

Dekada does, however fulfill one important function, with which it shares duty with Eskapo - to immerse us in an important yet apparently forgotten period of recent history. Rono tells horror stories of how, when extras were asked to cry before Ninoy Aquino’s coffin, few of the extras knew who Ninoy was; they had to be told to pretend it was celebrity youth Rico Yan in the coffin before they could give the proper reaction. If only for this, for giving us a reasonably well-filmed, well-acted drama about what happened and why during the ’70s, Rono’s film (along with his Eskapo) should be considered required viewing.

Note: Businessworld, December 27, 2002. The above also appears in Noel Vera's Critic After Dark: A Review Of Philippine Cinema (BigO Books).
Click here to order.






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October 2, 2007









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