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Movie review: Reality check in 'Ang Kwento ni Mabuti'

'Ang Kwento Ni Mabuti' poster
That not much happens in “Ang Kwento ni Mabuti,” is precisely its power. And while its premise is poverty as crisis and its context is the distance and removal that the poorer among us live with, not once did the film seem like poverty porn. Neither was it full of itself.

It would of course be easy to hate this film for not doing more, not being more, when it could've been less restrained. Yet, there is the fact that it didn't need to be more than what it was, because what this movie has to drive this story is what most other films don't have.

That is of course Nora Aunor.

The noise of calm

There isn't much to talk about given the context of Mabuti (Nora Aunor); her silence is borne of the fact that not much goes on in her life. She lives in Sitio Kasinggan in Nueva Vizcaya, with four young granddaughters under her care, all almost the same age, from a son and daughter who work in town hours away.

Mabuti and the four girls live with Mabuti's mother Guyang (Josephina Estabillo), who is always grouchy because she is exhausted by the state of things. Guyang is the perfect counterpoint to Mabuti's disposition, without the former being a stereotype of the impoverished either.

That is, Guyang is not one to complain about the way things are, as she is one to get angry about it. She cannot understand Mabuti's kind of parenting to Angge (Mara Lopez), who has three daughters without fathers, and Ompong (Arnold Reyes), who has left behind his daughter with Mabuti, too. Guyang is unhappy and discontented, and she takes it out on her four great-granddaughters who she insists must do more in the house, must work more, instead of playing all day. Guyang questions everything that goes on in the nuclear family of Mabuti. At some point she becomes a funny caricature, the voice of reason if not of conscience.

To say that Guyang is the noise to Mabuti's quiet is to miss a lot in this film. The noise after all is already in the kind of life that this family lives, where there is no better future in sight, and there is just another granddaughter on the way. Every day, Mabuti goes and makes sure that she can pump water from the nearby irrigation to their home. She gathers vegetables as they are available, and lives off being given fruit and produce in exchange for healing the members of the tiny community she is part of. She has a line to the barangay captain, who sees her no matter what she needs; who encourages her to run for political office, which seems absurd given the barangay she is part of. What we see of Sitio Kasinggan is miles and miles of mountains and fields, dirt roads and lone bahay kubos. Mabuti seems to walk forever.  

One might think Mabuti content if one considers that she doesn't complain. After all, she is able to provide food and shelter for the four girls she cares for and her mother, too. Every day, there is someone to heal from a snake or dog bite, and she receives produce in exchange for her healing. There is laughter here, and singing. There is a Mabuti as grandmother who works and is able to sustain the kids she is responsible for. Here is a woman who barely speaks, who is calm, even as poverty's noise is loud and clear.

The complexity as quiet

The status quo is disrupted, as expected, by need. Because within the world that Mabuti lives in, the present is enough, even as it gives little. A letter arrives, threatening to take over the land they live off; Guyang is threatened by it, while Mabuti takes control and says she will find a way.

We barely see how she does it of course. Instead what we see is Mabuti packing up, ready to go town even as it is not something she wants to do. Everything delays her trip: she gets off the jeep so she can heal another snake-bitten teenager, a military checkpoint looking for rebels forces her to stay the night at a military camp. The bus she's on gets a flat tire.

Mabuti meets Nelia (Sue Prado) who offers her food, and who sees how Mabuti handles disagreement: she talks to people and makes them feel better. She arrives in town and the local official she needs to talk to is on his day-off. Mabuti has traveled far, at least five hours on the bus, but she doesn't complain. Instead she sleeps on the street that night. The following morning we see her closing the door on the land management office; we do not know what has transpired. Mabuti doesn't speak throughout the trip back to Sitio Kasinggan, even when Nelia, also on the same bus, ignores her; even when Nelia, in distress, tells her to get her daughter in Santa Clara, whatever happens.

Then Nelia runs. One shot on the back kills her. The military insist she was part of the holdup in town the day before. Mabuti is left with a bag, filled with money that Nelia left behind. This then becomes a question of what one must do with the money, when no one knows it is with you, when you have a family in need the way Mabuti does. This becomes Mabuti's unraveling, because her moral compass – one that is unquestioned in the context of poverty she is part of – is suddenly being challenged by growing need and a lot of cash landing on her lap.

That all of this happens with quiet, as if nothing urgent or critical is happening at all, is a statement on the simplicity of the situation both in Mabuti's and our worlds. That is, we know what's right and wrong here, and we cheer on Mabuti to do the right thing. The greatness of this story is the fact that given what we know of Mabuti's life, we can also only be confused about what she must do.

The power in the simple

Mabuti is not a simpleton, but in her world, where words are barely spoken, it is easy to just be. There is want and need, but there is only so much one can do. She is not one to bargain for better, as she is one to try and fix things as much as her abilities allow. She wants to bring the money to the barangay captain, but takes the strange weather as a sign that she shouldn't; she goes to the military camp to talk to the captain about the money, but the camp is deserted. Mabuti waits for nothing and no one. She seems to always purposefully wait.

As she does heartily laugh, in that quiet way that we know the voiceless must. She speaks but doesn't talk or banter. She is nervous and sad, she is lost and confused, she is happy. And we only know this of Mabuti because she's got eyes that can pierce through your soul.

Which is to say that this is about Aunor, which almost goes without saying, and yet there is something here that she wasn't able to do in last year's “Thy Womb.” That is, she learned the language that everybody else in the film was speaking. In this sense Mabuti was more complete as a character than Shaleha; Mabuti was more real. Aunor as such isn't rendered quiet by the inability to speak in the same way, and Mabuti is allowed to actually be borne of the context that we see is hers in the film. She makes that universe work, and unravel, no matter that it is the tiniest, most removed, universe that many of us cannot fathom.

It is a universe of signs. And when Mabuti navigates and negotiates with those signs given her fears and joys, we are allowed to imagine life to be as simple, moral compass and all.

Yes, this film had technical problems, and I wish it took more care in rendering time and space as important aspects of storytelling. But most this film stands regardless, and that might be because of Aunor. Without her, it's entirely possible that “Ang Kwento ni Mabuti” wouldn't survive its own simplicity. Because not much happens in this story, but Aunor takes Mabuti's character and makes everything happen for her. — BM, GMA News

“Ang Kwento ni Mabuti” is written and directed by Mes De Guzman, and is part of the first CineFilipino Film Festival in theaters until September 24. This film has won Best Picture, and Best Director and Best Screenplay for de Guzman, in the first CineFilipino Awards.

Katrina Stuart Santiago writes the essay in its various permutations, from pop culture criticism to art reviews, scholarly papers to creative non-fiction, all always and necessarily bound by Third World Philippines, its tragedies and successes, even more so its silences. She blogs at The views expressed in this article are solely her own.