The conventions of storytelling is universal regardless of its medium: film, theatre, novel, even radio dramas and children’s fairy tales. Even non-linear works take on a basic framework because how else would one attain catharsis?
In Paul Soriano’s “Thelma”, the narrative follows a straight forward tack in telling the story, supposedly with emphasis on it not being a sentimental tale, i.e. “this isn’t drama,” reads many of its publicity pieces. This is labelled a “sports movie” by its makers - whatever the heck that means. Interesting then, right? Having laid that out, it’s a curiosity that in its effort to avoid being schmaltzy, it also fails to capture a sense of urgency where its “action” scenes were concerned. What’s even more pronounced is how this compulsion to explain their method is expounded under duress. “Thelma”, in its entire narrative flourish, is in fact melodrama! Anything related to sports takes a convenient backseat as the protagonist wallows in her own emotional conflict. This takes us back to the stages of storytelling. This is a didactic discourse on why “Thelma” eventually underwhelms.
Tragedy forces Thelma (Maja Salvador) to drop out from high school. Her younger sister Hannah (Eliza Pineda) figured in a vehicular accident that wouldn’t have transpired had Thelma not insisted on taking the treacherous detour on their way home from school. Suddenly, the glimmer of hope that could have eventually given Thelma a way out of stark poverty has dimmed. And she is awash with guilt.
Floring, the mother, weaves blankets and sells them to a local merchant, but times are hard and business is far from brisk. Moreover, Floring’s failing health leaves her exhausted and unproductive. Aldo, the father, farms a little parcel of an otherwise cantankerous Ilocos soil. Floring and Aldo (Tetchie Agbayani and John Arcilla, respectively) look at their daughters' helplessness with resignation.
But Thelma has a gift. She sprints with lightning precision and in the process, floats like the wind. One day, she is summoned back to school. Thelma has been conferred an athletic scholarship that takes her to Manila. This allows her the opportunity to “earn” from her stipend, thus sending the same money to her impoverished family. But city life is a rat race from hell. Though Thelma gradually proves her worth in a succession of marathons, she has to brave some scornful rivals and her constant yearning for home. She also finds romance in a fellow athlete Sammy (Jason Abalos) who himself is desperate for immediate work to tide over the financial requirements of raising his 7 siblings and his parents.
One day, Thelma receives a call from her Auntie Marie (Sue Prado) informing her of her mother’s debilitating illness. She bawls her heart out. The camera pans over and around our sympathetic heroine. Floring takes Marie’s phone and emphatically insists: “Ipagpatuloy mo anak. Huwag kang tumigil tumakbo.”
And like a vehicle suddenly running out of gas, the incessant caterwauling suddenly ceases while the closing frame shows Thelma competing again. Was that it? Yun na yon?
The first thing that strikes you here is its exquisite camera work (Odyssey Flores), utilizing a color palette that’s mostly muted, imparting an almost poetic veneer to every framed composition. The film employs eye-popping vistas (the Bangui Windmills of Ilocos Norte, the stunning plains where Thelma would run, etc.) They employed cranes and even helicopters to capture the sprawling landscape where our protagonist trains and subsists. This was a production that clearly didn’t scrimp.
Maja Salvador fires up a lackluster character that’s mostly unsympathetic. In Maja’s quiet moments (a 10-second scene showing her wistfully gazing at the horizon – the windmills spinning at the foreground), Thelma comes alive and metamorphoses into a compelling character. Salvador is simply a thespic thunder that deserves to be watched. She has always had this silent power to summon sincerity, not to mention a lambent charm that’s hard to resist. Had she been less, I’d have snored heavily while I watched. Tetchie Agbayani blazes the screen in half her screen time, appearing tough and tender; but her succeeding scenes flounder patronizingly. And something has to be said about Eliza Pineda’s Hannah: she was annoying, you wanted to take her out to sea and drop her deep in the ocean to get over her miseries.
Now what went wrong?
Greek philosophers like Aristotle analyzed the Dramatic Structure because of the popularity of storytelling. In fact, the Filipino and Asian perspective on the Dramatic Structure have spawned works characterized by maudlinism; sappy conversations and explosive altercations caught on stage, in the pages of a novel, on celluloid.
This said structure is divided by German playwright Gustav Freytag into 5 parts (acts):
(a) Exposition. This provides the background details and information needed to understand the story; i.e. “problem” is introduced.
(b) Rising Action. This is where basic internal conflict is complicated by the introduction of related secondary conflicts, including various obstacles that frustrate the protagonist's attempt to reach his goal.
(c) Climax or the ”turning point”. This marks a change, for the better or the worse, in the protagonist’s affairs.
(d) Falling Action. This is the moment of reversal after the climax. The conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist unravels, with the protagonist winning or losing against the antagonist.
(e) Denouement, Resolution or Catastrophe. This is where conflicts are resolved, creating normalcy for the characters and a sense of catharsis, or release of tension and anxiety, for the audience (or “reader” if the work is a written piece).
In Paul Soriano’s “Thelma”, the story gradually pieces an exposition (poor family and a child’s athletic talent), then the narrative introduces the basic conflict (younger sister becomes a cripple; older sister feels guilt). Unfortunately, the Climax transpires when the main characters didn’t even see each other. This was one of the dullest climaxes I’ve ever encountered. Thelma gets her shrill dramatic moment while on the phone. After this magnanimous moment, everything goes downhill.
The “Falling Action” falls flat with face first. Denouement is served in the form of a single frozen scene of Thelma running another marathon. They even failed to procure an epilogue that would bring closure to our protagonist’s miseries. “Resolution” should conclude the “Falling Action” by revealing or suggesting the outcome of the conflict. But there’s not even a hint into the future. I personally felt robbed out of a conclusion, and I was distressing over the fact that I had to witness all those droll situations for an obscure dissolution? And as Maroon 5 insists, “There ain’t nobody who could comfort me. Oh yeah!” Yes, they forgot the finishing touch, the “release of tension and anxiety” – not even an “unsatisfactory” comeuppance. And since character development is mostly facile and thin, we leave the theatre feeling nothing. As the film closes its exposition, it conveniently reminds us: “This is based on true stories.” Stories!
We don’t know. They forgot to tell us.