Thursday, March 4, 2010

Pitas and The Cinema of the Poor

After failure to pay for yet another monthly rent, Regie (Francine Prieto) and her children were thrown out of their house. They find themselves in slum's urban squalor just a stone’s throw from Malacanang Palace, where locals are constantly showered with “presidential” give-aways (noodles, rice).

Jasmine (Kristel Moreno) is discontent, but is constantly comforted by her mother’s (Francine) optimism that her beauty will eventually take her away from the slums. But the slums is a tenuous and testy environment for a lovely young girl like Jasmine. After all, the streets are populated by the dregs of society. One of whom is the amorous Rafael (Sid Locero) who sneaks glances at Jasmine's way. Rafael is unemployed but occasionally dabbles on tandem snatching with his friend Joven (newcomer Greggy Santos) – thus the title “Pitas”, a street slang for snatching. For a menial commission and territorial protection, he takes his “harvests” to Cabo (Bembol Roco), a former policeman (the barangay chairman) who has his eye on Jasmine’s mom, Regie.

It isn’t long before Rafael catches Jasmine at her most vulnerable. After getting her drunk, he takes advantage of her stupor, succeeding in what would be the movie’s second attempt to find cinematic context – “Pinitas mo si Jasmine.” says Joven.

This is where tension is eventually derived. Lourdes (Rio Locsin), Rafael’s prayerful and hardworking mother decides to go home to Marinduque. She is stricken with cancer. But she learns that Jasmine is tagging alone with Rafael. The girl is pregnant! What becomes of Regie’s dreams for her family? Something has to crumble from these convoluted situations, and it does, rather awkwardly!

I was mildly surprised by the easy storytelling that characterizes the first half of Joey Romero's “Pitas”. It is peppered with socio-political issues (if a tad too obviously) : politicians buying people's allegiance in the form of P500 pesos and a packet of noodles; presidential propaganda about government programs like the TESDA; desperate women turning to foreigners (like Regie's exes - "isang Kano, isang Hapon, isang Italyano") to flee from the clutches of poverty; companies shutting down or letting employees go; petty crimes as part of the slum's daily existence. Vignettes of apathy flash before us in enumerated succession, we felt like this was part 2 of "Puntod" shown last January!

The story is something that you’ve seen several times before! New artists bring life to these predictable narrative strings. But the cast deftly buoy up the story’s nondescript substance, so we take interest while watching the film.

For years now, Indies (aka the Digital Wave) continually mine the country’s abject poverty, sensationalizing the demoralization of a sick society. Exploitation cinema is upon us! In fact, by accounts of the foreigners who get to watch Filipino films abroad, Philippines is a metropolis of makeshift dwellings whose source of inspiration is the numerous rosaries we can pray from Wednesday to Sunday and back; the Philippines is the land of nubile macho dancers with prevalent homosexuality at every nook and cranny; we are a country of slum-dwelling, cockroach-infested (Claire Danes, hello!) whorehouses; our cinema halls reek with semen, our toilets are populated with flesh hungry critters; and our houses are inhabited by those who dream of leaving this god-forsaken land. I am so proud. Thank you, cinema.

Spoilers here!

What confounds us is how the story around Jasmine's rape was played out! There was a rape, wasn't there? With Jasmine lying down a bed heavily inebriated but obviously conscious, Rafael forces himself on her, as she struggles against his groping advances. Cut to the succeeding scene. We see Jasmine and Rafael walking side by side in blissful harmony. Regardless of how much I am attracted to a guy, once he forces himself on me and takes advantage of my vulnerability, I shall not see him as my Romeo. In my book, he shall cease to be the decent man that I was once attracted to, and I will not be found walking hand in hand with this scum who slithered his way inside me! That much is what common sense dictates!

The second half of "Pitas" down to its ending is a conundrum. The storyteller suddenly loses steam and ends his film abruptly, and I am not talking about the screening time! First, Jasmine had to participate in a dance contest, but even before the number is over, she falls down the floor. Lahat nakatunganga - while blood splatters down her pants! Of course that is more cinematic instead of just waiting for the performance to end and have her fall backstage, is it? Yet, despite her unfinished dance routine, “nanalo kayo anak”, reports her optimistic mother Regie! They suddenly forget that Jasmine just lost her baby! But what the heck, not only does she get a winning trophy, she also gains a scholarship for an unfinished dance number! Clap clap clap! Isn't life grand? Now tell me this isn’t escapist?

Sid Lucero is good, in fact he’s better here than in his mawkish teleserye for ABS CBN ("Magkano Ang Iyong Dangal"). Kristel Moreno looks fresh – perfect for the titular picking, but she is really out of her depths. No worries, it’s her first movie! She can get better! She does remind me of Mutya Crisostomo. Rio Locsin and Bembol Roco give gravitas to what should otherwise be a trite story. Francine Prieto looks a bit too heavy on screen, which should make her the perfect mother? Not really. Miss Prieto, despite her seniority in the business, looks too raw for her role. She needed spice, needed some shaking, needed more emotive insight to make her a believable, boisterous mother of three.

On the eye candy side, the film introduces Greggy Santos as Joven, Rafael’s friend and literal partner in crime. Santos is too goodlooking and too “scrubbed” to be taken for a slum dweller. But just when you’re about to write him off, he comes up with a very comfortable performance. He struts his stuff with confidence sans the awkwardness of a newcomer. He becomes the snatcher from the slums who drops neologisms like “namumuki” like it was vernacular. Ateneo should be proud!

Greggy Santos - Strong screen presence. Good thing Sid Lucero is a seasoned and confident actor!

Joven runs for his "harvest" (pitas) and hands it to Rafael. This is one snatcher that makes me blush! LOL

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