The spice of life is not its problems; it is the comedy that we make out of its little agonies.
During the Salamindanaw International Film Festival, on the last day of the Film Criticism Workshop, we had the chance to watch Patay na si Hesus (Villanueva, 2016) which for me was like winning a lottery.
To watch this film was to experience a continuum of emotions because it can successfully make the audience burst into helpless laughter and sob in quiet sympathetic tears in a fluid undistracted way. Villanueva’s direction together with the inspired and intelligent screenplay by Tabada makes this film one of the gems in Philippine cinema.
Its filmmakers created an affection towards a (Visayan Filipino) family through the portrayal of characters like Iyay, a single mother to three persons in their 20s. The family members must suspend their live’s present dilemmas, travel together in a van, and attend the last night of Hesus’s wake. Hesus was the ex-husband of Iyay and the absentee father of Victor, Hubert and Jude. On their way to Dumaguete where the wake is held, they encounter different “adventures” which are critical moments in the character’s individual lives. Even if the travel to Hesus’s wake was decidedly not a vacation, it was a breath of fresh air from the troubles of going old and making turning point decisions in the lives of the characters. It turned out that the death of an absentee father/husband is a force that disturbs the inertia in their life. Hesus’s death was also a closure in Iyay’s first love, almost buried by life’s urgencies, and between the children and their truant father.
Despite this sad narrative peg, the film does not make the audience sad; it makes them laugh, not in a numbing sense of entertainment but in a humane and sympathetic way.
Although the story was stirred by Hesus’s (Jesus’s) death, it was told in tactful comedy.
Pinoys have the tendency to make funny what isn’t through ironic jabs and witty exchanges of lines in conversations, but it rarely happens that the comical is delivered in a respectful and empowering manner.
This sensitivity of wit is also reflected in the mise en scène of Patay na si Hesus. In a notable scene, Iyay’s children and herself (all dressed in black) hysterically cry over Judas (the family dog who seems to replace Hesus in their family life). Judas was killed accidentally during Hesus’s burial procession. In this shot, Iyay’s family cry in agony over Judas in contrast to the mellowed sobs of Hesus’s present family and friends (all in white clothing). This scene was the final punch after building up the protagonist family’s almost stoic reaction about Hesus’s death and the noting of Hesus’s refusal to be brought to the church for blessing, because he knew himself to be unworthy of it. It reflects the overall narrative technique of the film wherein layers of cultural references are used to affect the audience and to incite consistent laughter from them.
In this film, there was no need to slight any of the characters to make the audience laugh. Instead, its unusual and hilarious moments that were familiar to the experiences of the audience showed well taught out, relatable characters. In my mind, I imagine that the filmmakers felt ecstatic that afternoon when it was shown for the first time to a big audience. The humor was there in the film and the audience (mostly composed of locals from General Santos City in Mindanao) who shared a similar sensibility with the filmmakers received it. Perhaps most members of the audience have an unarticulated appreciation for the exploding, loving mother, the broken-hearted lesbian, the repressed nun who embraced her freedom, the humbled board exam repeater or the stereotyped disabled person who continues to amaze by making spontaneously brave acts. Every character was out of sync from the stereotype and for this, they were received by a heartfelt, welcoming laughter as if the audience’s response was: yes, we understand you. In turn, the film encouraged the viewers to get out of the box and embrace life’s surprises, including its tragedies and moments of sadness. It can be the long-awaited replacement for the old slapstick comedy that plagues the Filipinos’ screens for many years now.
To fully appreciate this film, a viewer will benefit if he or she comes from “the same page” with the filmmakers. Perhaps this is an important distinction between regional cinema and mainstream cinema.
The satire ingrained in the dialogues showcase a form of wit that many Filipino families develop amongst themselves, as they interact. This type of in-group wit, usually developed and exchanged as an internal familial thing, was shared and exposed in Patay na si Hesus and thus helps to explain why Filipinos can laugh despite the difficulties of their everyday life. Humor is here not a sign of insanity or denial, but rather a sign of maturity, a level-headedness that regards problems as the spice of an interesting life.
Aptly so, all the scenes of Patay na si Hesus are consistently in a warm and sunny shot, as if the cinematography decidedly aimed to carry into the screen the tropical, bright colors of the country which reflect the cheerful attitude of its subject matter.
Patay na si Hesus is a homage to single mothers and to any woman who has decided to love someone and to build a family with that person. But when this love is not returned, she chooses to let go, even if painfully and slowly over the years. She chooses to go on with life, padayon. To love someone is to take the risk of getting hurt and Iyay was hurt with the absence of Hesus in her life. However, she did not make her love an act of regret, it became for her an act of moving on, quietly enduring, and in the end, fully letting go. Among other things, the film is about strong mothers, the people who keep this world sane, and the people who act as guideposts for young people like Jude, Victor and Hubert. However, Iyay is not idealized as the all-independent, unfeeling woman; she carries on with the support of her kids and with promises of new hopes in her life.
(The film’s trailer can be viewed here.)