In Mario O'Hara's remake of Gerry De Leon's Sisa, O'Hara daringly interprets the life of Philippine's national independence hero, Jose Rizal. This is the third Rizal biopic and the one that's set to confound critics as O'Hara brings a marginal character in one of Rizal's novels and places her as his key romantic obsession. Critic Noel Vera is driven out of his mind.


There’s much to dislike about Mario O'Hara's remake of Gerry De Leon's Sisa. The sets are basically of the plywood-and-styrofoam school of production design; the acting - sex star Gardo Verzosa plays Jose Rizal, sex starlet Aya Medel plays the title role - is crude, if not a bit embarrassing. The story is complex and difficult to follow, shifting from past to present to fantasy to supernatural reality, with little preamble and no apologies whatsoever.

Yet there’s something about Sisa that’s difficult to dismiss. Sisa, as all Filipinos know, is the madwoman who haunts the margins of Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere. Dressed in filthy rags, calling out the names of her two lost children, she’s the single most memorable character in the novel. O’Hara believes that memorable characters aren’t created so much as they are based on people the writer knew in real life. Rizal once spoke of a "Miss L., who has the most enchanting eyes." It’s O’Hara’s conceit (and the crucial difference between his film and Gerry De Leon’s) that this "Miss L.’s" was the basis for Rizal’s Sisa, and that she was the great love of his life.

In a sense, O’Hara has been remaking Sisa all his life. He not only wrote the screenplay for Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (Brocka’s version of Noli Me Tangere), he also played Berto the Leper, lover of Koala, the Sisa figure in the film. O’Hara may have revealed more of his feelings than he intended in Tinimbang, both in the screenplay and in his acting; his Berto (like his screenplay) is warm and compassionate, infinitely loving and infinitely tender towards the helpless, insane Koala. From writing a great screenplay for Brocka (and giving, incidentally, a great performance) to writing a great screenplay for his own film must have been an inevitable, all-too-tempting step.

I’ve never really liked Rizal as a dramatic character; he’s always been too passive, too intellectual a hero for me to believe in. Except for his execution, he lived a meandering, uneventful life - hardly ideal stuff for film biographies. I’ve never really understood what drove him to write his novels, or believe what he believed. His family was maltreated, yes, and he saw Spanish injustice first-hand, but that was years ago, when he was a child. Could there have been someone closer to him - some woman, perhaps - whose tragedy drove him to do what he did?

This is Sisa’s greatest audacity, its innermost ambition - to explain Rizal in such a way that he comes to vivid life before us. Everything O’Hara does complements and reinforces this ambition. He knew he couldn’t create the world of 1896 on a two-and-a-half million peso budget, so he deliberately creates an unrealistic one, out of plywood walls and styrofoam props. He knew he couldn’t get top-notch actors to play his Rizal and Sisa, so he reconceived them as a pair of crudely intense, emotionally passionate lovers (Verzosa and Medel are nothing if not intense). O’Hara has reimagined Rizal’s life the way Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard reimagined Shakespeare’s in John Madden’s Shakespeare In Love - as a grand, once-in-a-lifetime love affair. If you don’t buy it, you find yourself hooting helplessly in laughter; if you do buy it, you find yourself believing in Rizal for the first time, as a fully human being.

Rizal sa Dapitan was the first, Jose Rizal the biggest. Coming soon is Mike De Leon’s Bayaning Third World (Third World Hero), which was invited to this year’s Cannes. Sisa will probably fall between the cracks opened up by these three works. It’s a film too ambitious for its own good, a project that fails (though fails magnificently) to live up to the promise of its wildly innovative screenplay. It may end up forgotten in the flood of Rizal films, relegated to the more obscure dustbins of film history... except by those who can respond to its magic, or thrill to its unfettered imagination.

Note: Cinemaya magazine, Issue #44, Summer 1999. The above also appears in Noel Vera's Critic After Dark: A Review Of Philippine Cinema (BigO Books).
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June 12, 2007

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