What makes a great movie? More importantly, what constitutes a memorable film?
Sari Lluch Dalena and Keith Sicat’s documentary, “Himala Ngayon” offers a glimpse of what went on behind the making of the iconic Ishmael Bernal film that would have CNN declaring it as the “Best Asia-Pacific Movie of All Time”, outclassing even Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurais”.
It all started at a time of strife when the land was ruled by the repressive Martial Law. Writer Ricky Lee came across a news article about a girl named Belinda Cabra from Mindoro who, in 1966, had visions of the Virgin Mary. Her story provided the incipient idea that eventually became Elsa, an orphan girl from the arid and long suffering village of Cupang, who claims to have seen the Virgin Mary. When Lee peddled his script to film producers, no one would touch it with a ten-foot pole. It was considered “undoable” and just too ambitious. Enter Imee Marcos who, in 1982, spearheaded the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines (ECP) – a brain child of the then-First Lady Imelda Marcos. Among ECP’s realm was to provide financial assistance to a select number of motion pictures through a film fund. The production company eventually produced some of the country’s best films: Peque Gallaga’s “Oro, Plata, Mata”, Pio de Castro’s “Soltero”, Abbo de la Cruz’s “Misteryo sa Tuwa”, Celso Ad. Castillo’s “Isla” and Ishmael Bernal’s “Himala”.
Lee considered several names to direct his script: Mike de Leon (with whom he’s done 3 films in the past) and Lino Brocka (who directed his “Jaguar” script). De Leon was, however, in hiatus, and Lee wanted a megman with a different take: “isang sensibilidad na nakaangat nang konti”. Brocka was a down-to-earth realist. Religion, after all, requires faith, a rather abstract concept that’s far removed from realism, but nevertheless permeates the Filipino psyche. For his story, Lee wanted “Himala” tackled with the temperament of the European film masters like Godard, Bergman and Truffaut. Lee, at that time, adored the aforementioned masters. In fact, he managed a shop (“Shop and Lift”) in Greenhills that offered such films. Getting into the production was a different matter as well: Lee was among those thrown in jail for his thoughts against the Marcos dictatorship.
The narrative that Ricky Lee pitched to ECP was a 12-page storyline where “ang bida na assassinate”. Moreover, it included a “stampede” to conclude it. Not very commercial, wasn’t it? While most production outfits balked at the idea, ECP embraced it. But there were more stumbling blocks: Nora Aunor, picked to play Elsa, was embroiled in a legal mess; and Assistant Director Joel Lamangan was in jail. Imee Marcos pulled some strings and called Fabian Ver (then AFP Chief of Staff) for Lamangan’s release. (The latter denied this, saying he was already out of jail when production started. Lamangan would then move on to head crowd control, a salient matter in the production.) “It was my 145th film,” La Aunor mentioned. That year, she completed commercial films like Arman Reyes’ “Palengke Queen”, Pablo Santiago’s “Annie Sabungera”, Joey Gosiengfiao’s “No Other Love”, Romy Suzara’s “Mga Uod at Rosas”, and Danny Zialcita’s “T-Bird at Ako” pairing her off with erstwhile screen rival Vilma Santos who, that year, was a thespic thunder appearing in box-office dramas like "Relasyon", "Karma", "Haplos" and "Sinasamba Kita".
|Clockwise from top left: Nora Aunor, Ricky Lee, Pen Medina, Ishmael Bernal|
The documentary then lurches into the different aspects of the film making.
Location: The story required a place ravaged by drought. It was the story of a cursed town. As anecdote would have it, the Virgin Mary, dressed as a beggar, was turned away by the town’s folk, and the sprawl of the land has since been devoid of rainfall and the bounties of the land. “Si Papa ang location manager ko,” remarked an amused Imee Marcos. The province of Ilocos was then chosen as the setting. It was easier for the production because Marcos could conveniently ask the help of the army to transport people and stuff. Upon reaching Paoay, all they saw was how lush and green the place was, which became a dilemma. Good thing they found Suba Beach which was blessed with undulating sand dunes and a look that mimicked drought-ravaged lands.
Budget: P2.5 million was initially allocated for “Himala”. This ballooned to P2.7 million during mid-production. In 1982, this was a staggering amount for any film project and had producers, Charo Santos-Concio included, shivering in their pants. Would they be able to complete it? Absolutely – and to the tune of more than P3 million. While this seemed sacrilegious in the context of social ills and poverty for the thousands of dispossessed Pinoys, high art doesn’t conform with a budget, or does it?
Script: There were constant revisions during the filming. Lee would find himself constantly commuting between Manila and Paoay, enduring 7 to 8 hours of bus ride. “Naguluhan ako,” Lee would complain due to the endless revisions. This also highlights the importance of artistic collaboration and dynamism in film making. Though hailed as brilliant work these days, Lee remembered how the film got mixed reviews from critics: “Though it won 9 out of the 10 awards at the MMFF, they raved everything about it, but the script.” Some would even say, “Wala naming ginawang iba (si Nora) kundi magdidipa,” which is really a succinct way of showing ignorance of the medium. Lee would then offer this: “Maganda lang ang karanasan mo bilang writer kung nahirapan ka.”
There were preeminent moments in the documentary that highlight film logistics and attitude: Actor Pen Medina, who played Pilo, the barrio lothario and boyfriend of Elsa’s confidant Chayong (Laura Centeno), moaned about Ishmael Bernal’s demeanor and gargantuan temper. He pointed out a scene where he was made to roll down a pig sty as he made out with his girlfriend. “It was unnecessary,” he said. Joel Lamangan, who was production manager for crowds, was made to secure pigs to join Medina and actress Laura Centeno for the love-making scene. “Hinihila namin ang bayag ng baboy para mag react kasi gusto ni direk na mag react ang dalawang baboy habang gumulong gulong sa lupa ang mag boyfriend,” recalled Lamangan. Medina also lamented about Bernal’s disposition towards his cast and crew. There was a subclass he could dress down, embarrass, and curse at. In fact, at the height of Bernal’s tantrum, he would throw stuff around, destroying sets in the process. Lamangan fell victim: “Mag reresign na nga sana ako kasi binato ako ng silya.” Bernal would later cajole Lamangan: “I wasn’t mad at you. Ikaw lang ang tinamaan,” which is a funny way of rationalizing an irascible tantrum. Fast forward to the present, Lamangan is known for his volatile deportment.
The final scene was close to impossible to field. It had a crowd of 3,000 that had to depict pandemonium when Elsa was finally shot. Nora’s spiel would go unrehearsed. "Pakiramdam ko talaga, ako si Elsa," La Aunor said. That scene was going to be one long take: “tinuhog” using 4 cameras all over the place. There wasn't going to be a retake because it would require sets to be reconstructed and the film was already morbidly over-budget at P3.2 million. When the cameras rolled, it was simply a scene of fluid pandemonium and breathtaking proportions. The rest, as they say, is as the cliché goes.
There were behemoth problems during the film making, not the least of which was La Aunor’s accident: Off the set, during one of the cast’s down time, La Aunor joined the cast and crew's drinking spree. Aunor’s assistant was forewarned not to allow a drop of alcohol for the Superstar. “Pag nalasing yan, gustong mag drive.” She got drunk. Drove to the wrong lane and hit a jeep that carried a pregnant woman. Aunor lay unconscious for 45 minutes, her shoes thrown out in mid-air. “Ang Gemini (car), parang accordion,” remembered the Superstar who suffered concussion. “Buti na lang walang nangyari sa buntis na babae at ‘di nag demanda,” recalled Aunor. The pregnant lady was a Noranian. Once again, this is a cautionary tale told without hint of amusement. There are lessons to be learned from such anecdotes.
The documentary has more priceless stories that entertain (like when Bernal had to instruct Aunor to cry with a single drop of tear “sa kaliwang mata”, and they needed a single take because the sun was setting fast; or how Lamangan was able to gather hundreds of physically deformed individuals for the crowd scene given only 8 hours to scour the population of Vigan).
Nora Aunor was 29 years old when "Himala" came about. I have never thought of her as "beautiful" until I saw the remastered version of the film. "Himala" to me was a film I saw (several times) in my video player, and its grandeur was clearly diminished by the medium. Watching "Himala" on the big screen was an astonishing experience, a new technology brought about by a new age gadget called 35 mm millennium scanner that allows color correction and picture restoration to old film reels, imbuing new life into old images. Nora Aunor, as Elsa, offered this, "Kung kalansay na tayo, ang matitira na lamang ay ang tinatawag na sining (art)". Old films allow us to rediscover what came before us. This restored version showed how truly beautiful Nora Aunor was in her prime. I couldn't take my eyes off her face! When she peeked into her window or glanced at photographer Orly (Spanky Manikan) with the slightest hint of a smile, you understand why mestizos and the prettiest of men were drawn to the magic of La Aunor. It wasn't just fame or fortune or even those legendary eyes, but real beauty.
PASSING OF TIME
A favorite part of the document was how directors Dalena and Sicat were able to scout some of the extras from the film: a breast feeding mother (the child is now a nurse); a son and a father sitting by the roadside holding a rooster; old ladies; children made to blow air on used condoms. When their scenes were re-enacted and played alongside the original, it created a memorable experiment depicting the passage of time: the son, now wrinkly, sitting alone because his father had long passed away.
Drawing on interviews, alongside archival period footage, conducted with Nora Aunor, Ricky Lee, Imee Marcos, Charo Santos-Concio, Spanky Manikan, Pen Medina, Vangie Labalan, Gigi Duenas, Raquel Villavicencio, a number of the extras and the cast and crew, “Himala Ngayon” reflects on the film making choices of an epoch of great artistry; the mechanics of putting up a behemoth production 30 years ago, and the sumptuous trivias related to the iconic film, creating a time bubble fraught with nostalgia. It also provides a source of inspiration for a slew of film makers who carry on despite the odds. “Himala Ngayon” is a diligent work that’s as informative as it is entertaining.