Culturtain Musicat Productions’ Ang Larawan (The Portrait), as the only musical entry, is a rare artistic treat for Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF) viewers. It brings quality performances the local theater is known for closer to the masses for the price that is equivalent of a fast food meal.
Director Loy Arcenas’ Ang Larawan is the film adaptation of Larawan, The Musical, which is based on National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin’s play A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino. Aside from the high-caliber writing, Ang Larawan’s libretto is written by National Artist for Theater and Literature Rolando Tinio and its music is created by respected composer Ryan Cayabyab. With the accolades of the artistic force behind Ang Larawan, watching the film on Christmas day was a forgone conclusion.
Ang Larawan is set in October 1941, just before the start of World War II, in Intramuros, Manila. It centers on the struggles of the Marasigan sisters, Candida (Joanna Ampil) and Paula (Rachel Alejandro) to pay for the upkeep of their huge house and the medical expenses of their once-great father, the artist called El Magnifico, while maintaining their dignity as they greatly rely on their financially capable siblings, Manolo (Nonie Buencamino) and Pepang (Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo). They also try to make it on their own by renting out one of the rooms in the house to vaudeville pianist Tony Javier (Paulo Avelino), Candida trying to catch rats for a fee, and Paula hoping to teach Spanish to men and give piano lessons to women.
Candida and Paula’s problems can be solved if they decide to sell the last masterpiece of their father, a work dedicated to the sisters, which at one point can fetch $10,000 (P20,000), but the sisters are adamant not to profit on the painting. It is consistent to their belief, Contra Mundum (defy the world).
Ang Larawan shows a slice of life of the upper crust in the 20th century – the way the speak, think, dress up, treat art and literature, party, and do politics. It is an interesting look into the past when ladies were scandalized by a man’s touch and Manila Hotel was the coolest place to be.
Ang Larawan is a powerful film with a credible and talented cast. Ampil as Candida is a sight to behold whether she sings her lines to dish them out with relish. She portrays strength (as the older sister of Paula) and vulnerability (towards the end of the film) with equal ease. Alejandro is stellar as Paula, the naïve lady who falls for the charms of Tony. She is at her greatest when she realizes that Candida is not on her side anymore. The emotions that register on her face at that moment are more than any actress can demonstrate. Avelino is a little rough around the edges, which is apt for his character as the non-pedigreed ambitious and unhappy proletariat, yet his singing voice is distinctly different than one with theater background. His presence onscreen, which is a tad too angry for his role, is a little distracting at times, and not in a good way.
Buencamino, Lauchengco-Yulo and their upbeat numbers are wonderful as the fun distraction from all the doom and gloom of their sisters’ predicament. Their exchange of words is playfully professional in delivery, facial expression and body movements.
The cameo roles of other celebrities add color and life to the film. It is a surprise to see performers sing their hearts out like they are the stars of the show. There is really no small role in this film.
Ang Larawan boasts of on point acting and critical direction. The dialogues and songs showcase the beauty and profundity of the Filipino language, something the a lot of Filipinos have forgotten. The heritage house, the parties, the costumes, and the La Naval procession are delightful throwbacks that remind me of the line, “ganito kami noon, paano kayo ngayon”.