Our Lady of Cassette Tapes
by Don Jaucian
D: Loy Arcenas
C: Fides Cuyugan Asensio, Sharmaine Buencamino, Racquel Villavicencio, Arthur Acuna, Jhiz Deocareza, Joaquin Pedro Valdes, Tony Mabeza
Targeted to hit the sentimental and sappy virtues of Filipino families and their often lauded close-knit ties, Pinoy family drama films feel much more like an overblown actors showcase rather than a sincere depiction of the strange and wonderful world of Pinoy families, regardless of social class and economic divisions.
But Loy Arcenas’s Niño, the unexpected gem of this year’s Cinemalaya, bulldozes preconceived notions of the Filipino family drama in many subtle ways. It successfully fuses irony, comedy and melodrama without resorting to the usual histrionics and platitudes.
Niño’s dysfunctional family is quite fucked up. Filipinos love watching movies and teleseryes where families crumble like buildings against a tsunami but in Arcenas’s film, each of the family members bottle up their issues until they all explode simultaneously.
Watching each of these characters break and struggle is often heartbreaking. We see Celia (the amazing Fides Cuyugan Asensio) relive her glory days by singing along to her taped arias, using them as a means to communicate with her bedridden brother Gaspar (Tony Mabeza), who eventually falls into a coma after a heart attack. Celia holds on to their ancestral house, an edifice that stands as a reminder of their family’s past stature when they used to host parties for the country’s art and political elite, with Celia being one of Philippine Opera’s butterflies and Gaspar an influential senator.
With the last remaining glimmer of grandeur of their house fading away (unkempt windows, eaves and walls, chipped paint, a neglected garden and a decades old car that doesn’t seem to run anymore), Celia persuades Gaspar to hold on to the house despite the numerous offers from real estate agents. The final straw comes when Gaspar’s daughter, Raquel (Raquel Villavicencio) arrives to tend to her comatosed father, starting a chain of events that would unravel the bitter fate of the Villa Los Reyes Magos household.
Prior to that, Celia’s son Mombic (Arthur Acuna) with his son Antony (Jhiz Deocareza) had already wreaked havoc in the house, arriving from Davao where he sold his business to go to Dubai, much to the ire of his sister Mercedes (Sharmaine Buencamino), who is still unmarried but keeps a secret relationship with their female boarder.
This kind of set-up could have gone haywire in the hands of a lesser director but Arcenas treats his characters with care, letting them unfold in fascinatingly precarious ways. They yearn for something more, something that would finally point them in the right direction, but they never get there, always anchored by the transgressions that they have committed.
Niño is one of the best family-centric stories in Philippine Cinema in a long while. Arcenas never attempts to reduce familal struggle to a spectacle. Instead, he rides along with them, letting us witness every glance, every attempt to break free until we eventually realize that, like everything else, the slow decay of time will take them away, no matter how pitch perfect your aria is.