Filipino Film ‘Ang Larawan’ Sets the Bar High for Movie Musicals

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Joanna Ampil and Rachel Alejandro in 'Ang Larawan.' (Courtesy of the film)

So far, Hollywood hasn’t figured out how to bring the movie musical into the 21st century. From the razzmatazz of Moulin Rouge to the retro aspirations of La La Land, filmmakers have shoehorned bankable stars into productions whose glitz cannot elevate formulaic story lines and uninspired scores.

Maybe they should take a leaf from the distinguished team that has brought the classic Filipino play Ang Larawan (The Portrait) to the screen. Having just romped off with six major awards at the Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF), including Best Picture and Best Musical Score, this lustrous gem of a film screens at the San Francisco Film Society Cinema on Jan. 11 and in other Bay Area theaters Jan. 12-18.

Ang Larawan follows a pair of genteel spinsters who go to shocking lengths to prevent the exhibition or sale of a self-portrait by their reclusive father, renowned society painter Don Lorenzo Marasigan. The Marasigan family’s grand but decaying home -- recreated in exquisite detail -- lies in Intramuros, the ancient walled city at the heart of Manila, that will shortly be decimated in the second World War.

The movie can be appreciated as a period piece rife with nostalgia for a high-minded, Spanish-influenced culture that was rapidly eroding under the crass, freewheeling mercantilism of the American regime. But the play, written in English around 1951 by playwright and social commentator Nick Joaquin and originally titled A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino, also asks what it means to be Filipino -- not just in the American Commonwealth era, but through generations scarred by one oppressive regime after another.


Translated into Tagalog, with a vibrant score that weaves opera, jazz and Broadway influences into the Filipino musical traditions of sarswela (zarzuela) and kundiman, the energy feels modern, even as the characters waft about in finely embroidered, Spanish Empire-cut gowns and clothes inspired by the flapper era. Both the Tagalog libretto, by poet and dramatist Rolando Tinio, and English subtitles powerfully and vividly distill the original English dialogue, particularly in scenes of highly charged confrontation.

Tertulya scene in 'Ang Larawan.'
Tertulya scene in 'Ang Larawan.' (Courtesy of the film)

Joanna Ampil, a star of London’s West End, took home the MMFF's Best Actress award for her portrayal of the gutsy but deeply conflicted Candida Marasigan, who drives her timorous sister Paula into bed with charming con man Tony Javier. Rachel Alejandro as Paula gives a superbly nuanced performance, while the rakish Paulo Avelino in the role of Tony chillingly self-destructs once Paula thwarts his scheme to make off with the prized portrait and sell it to a rich American. Major and minor roles alike are unforgettably played by dramatic and comedic headliners of Philippine stage and cinema.

In the eccentric cast of characters that includes bodabil (vaudeville) entertainers, social-climbers and patricians, today’s audiences will recognize a social stratification that has remained essentially intact. As the locus of power shifted from the Spanish friars to American technocrats, to the Japanese army, then to dictator Ferdinand Marcos, those who chose to collaborate with the authorities were usually able to consolidate wealth and establish local fiefdoms, many of which survive today. If it feels like the country is at some new breaking point, under the iron-fisted Rodrigo Duterte, Ang Larawan serves as a reminder that we’ve been there before. And a reminder not to abandon art, for it can be our most powerful source of illumination in times of crisis.

Still from 'Ang Larawan.'
Still from 'Ang Larawan.' (Courtesy of the film)

The movie closes with heart-stopping footage of the shelling of occupied Manila by American planes, then cuts to the Marasigan family and their friends as they watch a religious procession from their windows. We know the Marasigans will perish. The juxtaposition of carnage and holy cavalcade underscores both the futility and the eternal hope embedded in shared ritual. The hazy, dreamlike filming of the procession, almost unbearable in its beauty, points to the fragility of time and place. San Francisco audiences, many of whom belong to a diaspora, may be profoundly moved.

'Ang Larawan' screens at San Francisco Film Society Cinema (1746 Post Street) at 6:30pm and 8:30pm on Thursday, Jan. 11 and at theaters throughout the Bay Area Jan. 12-18. For tickets and more information, click here.

Correction: This review originally stated that the film ends with footage of the Japanese bombing of Manila. The footage is of American planes.