Films about provincial school teachers can be deadly dull and Gil Portes's Munting Tinig (Small Voices) fits the bill. Critic Noel Vera tries to find his brain after one too many boring lessons.



THE ASIAN VALUES DVD REVIEW

Gil Portes’s Munting Tinig (Small Voices) is about a teacher (Alessandra de Rossi) who arrives at a backwater town as substitute for the school’s departing teacher, said substitute being not much older than the students themselves.

Sounds familiar? Try Zhang Yimou’s Not One Less. One of her students is so poor he has to share his school uniform with his older brother, both taking turns wearing the uniform to class. Sounds familiar? Try Majid Majidi’s Children Of Heaven. To raise morale and bring class and school together, the teacher enters her students in a contest (in this case a chorale singing competition), struggling to get the parents’ approval where they are mainly interested in using their children as free labor. Sounds familiar? Try Sister Act and Stand and Deliver.

Munting Tinig was written by Adolf Alix Jr, Portes and Senedy Que, the latter also rents out art films in various formats (has a pretty good collection, too). One wonders if perhaps the writers dipped into Que’s collection for ideas whenever they were creatively stuck while writing the script.

It’s perhaps not a fair assumption to make (even with evidence practically staring at you) and not a big deal even if true (Portes claims in one of his many press releases that the shared uniform is a true story); I just don’t think it’s a good sign when the audience plays a game of "where from?" with a movie. But what else can you do?


 

The storytelling is, to put it kindly, erratic - the picture dwells on the extraneous (de Rossi listening to her landlady (Gina Alajar) talk endlessly about her daughter (the recently departed teacher)), while skimping on the crucial (de Rossi waking up to learn that every parent has suddenly given their approval).

The camera understates to the point of dullness (some scenes look flat enough for TV), but when approaching a dramatic climax, suddenly loses all shame (crying is done in long close-ups, to catch every falling drop). The jokes are lame - one older boy is kidded for falling in love with de Rossi, another suffers from an incurable case of farting mostly done in poor taste (which I don’t mind) and not very funny (which I do).

One subplot, about two brothers whose father (Noni Buencamino, excellent and underutilized as usual) joined the insurgency, has an unintentionally chilling effect in the light of recent events: you wonder what they think about his belonging to a group that possibly plants bombs or kidnaps foreigners (it’s almost the basis for a far more interesting film altogether).

This being a small-budgeted, small-scale film, characterization should play a crucial role; unfortunately it’s mostly a hit-or-miss affair (a mostly miss-than-hit affair). De Rossi’s teacher is the standard-issue stereotype of the noble educator, with a few off-key details: she comes to town hoping to do a bit of service and brings along (as symbol, probably unintentional, of her higher cultural and financial capabilities) her flute. She has inchoate ambitions about making a difference, but depends on the allowance her mother sends her to buy boxes of ice candy and the odd chorale costume (must be a generous-sized allowance there).

And she’s so damned passive - all she does through most of the film is walk around, eyes huge with indignation at the tremendous inadequacies of the Philippine educational system (doesn’t she watch the evening news, or read the papers?). When she’s not being shocked she’s an open bucket, ready to receive every passing soul’s two centavos’ worth of wisdom and/or advice (Alajar being her landlady dumps about a hundred pesos nightly).

The defect is all the more glaring when you realize just how easy it would have been to make de Rossi’s character interesting - simply ask: what kind of person is crazy enough to want to become a schoolteacher? Worse, what kind of person is crazy enough to want to become a schoolteacher in the provinces?

De Rossi’s character could have been hiding some kind of inner inadequacy - a hunger to prove herself to her mother, maybe, or a driving need to live up to her father’s idealism. She could initially come off as being too aggressive, or too strident, or too demanding; or, like the teacher in Not One Less, totally indifferent to everything except the promise of extra money - anything to contrast with the eventual nobility.

Even a villain would help; Dexter Doria shows some snap and bite early on, as the school supervisor who sells ice candy in her spare time, but by the latter half of the picture her supervisor is as soggily supportive of de Rossi as the rest. Purely virtuous protagonists are the most difficult to dramatize; they need a tremendous amount of care and attention to detail to bring off convincingly, otherwise they end up looking like plaster saints. Portes, with his casual, off-the-cuff approach, fails, his audience fails to believe accordingly, and the film as a result fails to come to life.

Which is a pity. Education IS a pressing issue, the film DOES have its small-budgeted heart in the right place; and, watching it on its first night in the theaters, it’s annoying to see just how few people actually bothered to go see it at all.

I’m tempted to recommend the film anyway, for the abovementioned reasons and to give it a fighting chance to be seen; I just can’t bring myself to recommend it in a very large voice, is all.

Note: Businessworld, October 25, 2002. The above also appears in Noel Vera's Critic After Dark: A Review Of Philippine Cinema (BigO Books).
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August 7, 2007









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