Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

30 Nov 2012

(Movie - 2005) Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros directed by: Auraeus Solito

(Reaction) A Slum Blossom by: Jose Angelo Singson

There is no word per word translation for the title of the film but it can be rendered roughly as The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros and this is in fact the word used in the English subtitled release of the film.

The word pagdadalaga is a Filipino term used to describe a young woman's prepubescent years and refers to the many physical changes she goes through as she develops into a mature woman. This stage is often likened to plants about to put forth flowers so it calls to mind a sense of beauty in flux and innocence. It is a fleeting time many associate with naivete and like a blossoming plant, a strong sense of vulnerability.

The word pagdadalaga indeed captures that sense of naive wonder and fragility that comes with youth.

The title of the film is in itself a clever, humorous play of words. Pagdadalagabeing a strictly female term and the name Maximo being a cliched masculine name when put together forms a sentence that reads out as an oxymoron.

Despite the very obvious gay themes of the movie, the movie itself is not about sexual orientation but about family. The film is largely about family values - the ties that bind a family together and the clannish relationships that is truly the beating heart of the legendary Filipino resilience against adversity. The gayness, for lack of a better term, served as a backdrop, willing to become a stage light that helped color the film instead of a feature that begged for attention.

The film also presents an often exploited aspect of Filipino life - poverty - in a very unique light. Rather than pandering poverty, as so many Filipino indie films in the past have, Ang Pagdadalaga... presents poverty much like it did the themes of homosexuality, a backdrop that gave an additional layer of flavor but not calling undue attention to itself.

In my opinion it is this refusal to sell the themes of urban poverty and homosexuality to sensationalize the film elevates it to new heights. Poverty is presented with a refreshing honesty. Viewers are able to experience vicariously what it is like to live on the other side of the tracks and not have that experience colored as a terrible condition to be escaped or a terrible social illness to be stamped out. Poverty is presented as it is, warts and all, and taken as the denizens of the slums see it: as reality to be lived. Nothing is whitewashed in the film's presentation of slum life. All the physical grit and grime is present both in the surroundings and on the people speech and demeanor and the film is wholly unapologetic about the presentation of the matter.

The film also refuses to make use of stereotypes be it in the characterization of Maximo or Maxi/Maxie, as he is affectionately called, the supporting cast of characters and even the situations that they find themselves in. The movie takes all typical conventions formerly portrayed in these films and flips it on its head. The movie treats us to a heartwarming scene where Maxi and his family of tough-as-nails muggers sit down to a simple family meal. They are promptly chided by the family patriarch-mob leader, brilliantly played by Soliman Cruz---for not having said grace and for not having better table manners; a brilliant juxtaposition of contrasts that elicits both a wry smile and a sardonic laugh from many a movie-goer.

The portrayal of Maxi's family is an interesting and original departure from the convention. The viewing audience almost expects Maxi to live out his days as a human punching bag, being an openly effeminate lad living in a shanty town where dog-eat-dog is not a saying but a way of life. Instead we see him being loved, and lavishly at that, by his brutish older siblings. He is accepted, no questions asked, as he is. In fact their acceptance is so complete, their treatment of Maxi so genuinely chivalrous-fraternal that one almost completely forgets that Maxi, at least biologically, is a young boy. Again the audience is treated to a scene of genuine fraternal love as Maxi is comforted by his hoodlum brother when he is rebuffed by the object of his boyhood affection.

Maxi's homosexuality is not played up to be a humorous matter despite his enjoyment of playing out his fantasy as a beauty queen. He in fact often proves to be the only feminine element in his otherwise fully male household and thus serves as an effective foil for the brusqueness of his brothers and an effective contrast to the otherwise brutally harsh environs of the slum. He is the yin to everyone else's yang.

Maxi's gayness again, pardon the term, serves as a revitalizing dissimilarity: a boy who'd rather play dress up instead of picking fights with other boys to prove his strength. A boy who would much rather care for his family instead of taking part of their violent lifestyle. He is the odd egg. A non-violent child in a rough and tumble place where violence is the order of the day.

Even the portrayal of the police in the film takes the audience completely by surprise. Here, the audience is given a good uncomfortable shakedown as the corrupt police chief played by Bodjie Pascua of Batibot fame, a childhood icon in the Philippines, guns down a helpless Mang Paco (Maxi's dad) in retribution for his past crimes. The use of such a well-loved childhood figure to play a vengeful, rotten cop was another original stroke of genius.

Despite the inherent violence in the film there is no actual villain or antagonist driving the characters into conflict with each other. Instead it is the intrinsic cruelty of life conditions in the hovels of Manila that pit them against each other.

Each character's motivation can be, to a certain extent, justified---Maxi's siblings' mug people to live and the police chief is sworn to uphold the law and maintain order. Each character therefore can be empathized and sympathized with further blurring the lines typically clearly marked out for the hero and villain in conventional films. Both characters end up losing. The cop sells out and justifies murder, bypassing the justice system and the petty thief gets what naturally comes to petty thieves that get sloppy.

Perhaps the strongest underpinning theme throughout the film was the death of innocence and there are many metaphors that tackle this theme, chief among them being young Maxi himself. Maxi is on the cusp of becoming a teenager and everyday the harsh reality of his world encroaches on him. His family makes a living from the misery of others. His older brother becomes a wanted criminal after accidentally having killed a student in a mugging incident. His father is killed by a corrupt cop and he is in love with a man who as sworn to put his whole family behind bars. The death of innocence is unavoidable and imminent. Events happen quickly and without any regard for what Maxi feels or believes in.

In spite of all that goes on though, the movie remains truthful in its portrayal and its spirit. It continues not embellishing what is good nor does it obscure the painful and ugly. Throughout the film it continues to stick to what it believes: that is, that love of family is transcendent. It overcomes heartbreak, forgives betrayal and gives one the strength to keep moving forward. It gives one the vision to keep living on. The movie consistently champions family ties and friendships and emphasizes that respect is due to every person, regardless of sexual preference and that nobility of spirit, despite its origins and current location, will always, always shine brightly.

After having seen the film one might be tempted to ask what exactly does Maximo Olivares blossom into? In my opinion the film title is a play on one the film's themes, that of the death of innocence; but in this case though Maxi's innocence does not die but rather goes through a process of metamorphosis.

Mang Paco's death affects the entire family but rather than destroying the family his death frees them, again keeping consistent with the film's anti-establishment approach to storytelling. They now stick together even tighter than before and decide to take the high road, abandoning the life of crime with the eldest brother even saying Mag-aral ka ng mabuti ha? Mahirap nang kitain ang pera ngayon (Study well. Earning money isn't easy these days anymore...) Here we see a different Maxi.

Although he hardly utters a word in the last few scenes there is an almost palpable new strength that he radiates. He has experienced the death of his father and he is now fully aware of how dangerous his community actually is. He has experienced the sweetness of puppy love, the bitterness of betrayal and the pain of having to choose between devotion to his family and youthful infatuation. In short we see how the world has left its indelible mark upon young Maxi but instead of bitterness and resentment we see him mature.

Ironically Maximo blossoms, or nag-dalaga if you will, into a strong young man. Having lost his naivete but retaining his kindness and gentleness of demeanor he leaves the safety of his home aware that it is a tough world that he has chosen to take part in but bravely does it knowing that it is not all grit and grime out there but also beauty and wonder.

Review:

The film's plot and storyline are deceptively simple but makes up for it in the depth of its characters and the skill of its performers. Visually there is a digital, decidedly indie feel to it but does not feel or come off as trying too hard.

Nearly everything in the film comes as a pleasant surprise and please do yourself a favor: if the movie strikes a deep, emotional cord in you, let yourself cry. You will have lost nothing by letting your guard down.

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