Young Critics Circle Film Desk
"Driving Miss Nora" - Retro Review: Patrick D. Flores on Naglalayag


 

We last saw Nora Aunor on the silver screen in 1999 in the lamentable Sidhi, a film on a mute rural woman deceived by a hustler; she connives with his mistress, a la Diabolique, to write him off for good. The project had obviously set its sights on the prospects of Nora’s fabled eyes doing all the work, with her speechless vision taking our breath away. But the gravitas of an actress like Nora cannot carry all the load. The cinematic cargo must yield its own goods. Sidhi was simply empty. 

Nora’s most recent performance, however, was not in this film. It was in her participation in the previous political campaign, a sortie that would tax good will and artistic energy from a star who did not have to stoop so low. And it stands out as a sorry story, something more lamentable than Sidhi in terms of loss of moral voice. After engaging in plain and pure politicking, a selfish gesture not appreciated by many selfless adherents, she hied off to the United States for a concert tour with Kuh Ledesma. Reports tell us that the gig was a hit. 

After five years of flitting in and out of so-called minor forms of entertainment, including a stint at the soap opera factory, and a more tainted passion like politics, Nora appears before us, in all of her fifty-one eventful years, in the film Naglalayag, directed by Maryo J. de los Reyes. Entered in the June Manila Film Festival, it promises to be a distinct work and is envisioned to revive the artistic pretenses of an industry that has wasted away its legacy in the most wanton of ways. 

We caught the preview of Naglalayag at the storied Sampaguita studios, efficiently organized by an army of Noranians tending the shrine of their beloved in the cutting-edge technology of the Internet. It initially sails away like komiks, contriving the encounter between a justice of the Court of Appeals named Dorinda who lives alone (after her husband had died and her son had gone to the United States) and a taxi driver whose father had been killed in a grisly hold-up. It is an unlikely friendship at first, awkward and clumsy, but inevitably torrid, and thus perilous and endangered. That they meet one evening amid heavy downpour and get marooned in a flashflood is ominous enough. Also, that the name of the man is Noah, an earnest son and suitor, forecasts that the woman will soon find the ark of her salvation. 

If in the film End of the Affair, from Graham Greene’s novel, the third party, in fact the villain, is God, whose presence intervenes in the termination of the romance, here it is society portrayed as a compendium of hypocritical jurisprudence against a different expression of love between two people coming from disparate generations and classes that steps in to tear the liaison asunder. But the lovers prevail, and here Naglalayag, which is a tidy operation on the whole, suffers problems. 

First, the social constraints imposed on Dorinda and Noah are predictably depicted, reducing characters around them as mere functions of a conservative consciousness; the film strains itself too much to make the point that the two are persecuted, and no nuance of complex negotiation is attempted to overcome this stalemate. Naglalayag is stranded in issues of deviance and aberration, solitariness and belonging, indeed the laws of desire with no amendments. 

Second, such self-fulfilling prophesy limits the film’s possibilities in terms of its resolution; when a tormented couple like this flees the madding crowd and retreats into a private zone, the finis could only be either tragic or triumphant. Naglalayag opts for the former, with the media, one of the sources of prejudice against this arrangement in the first place, celebrated as the vessel of its vindication in all irony. 

Third, the film is not able to resist the lame romantic temptation and overlooks what could have been the germ of the entire scenario as marked in one critical scene in which Noah makes an unbidden visit in a hospital where Dorinda’s mother-in-law had been rushed. Dorinda protests against this call as it might shame her and Noah snaps: “Why? What is our relationship anyway?” The sleight-of-hand of the man who has initiated the cycle of juvenile courtship is interesting and the astonishment of the woman, at once erotic and maternal to her prince, in the face of this fact is telling. This proves to be the chance of Naglalayag to pursue an atypical path. 

Finally, the symmetry between the entity of an enamored woman and the State justice system that is punitive and at the same time inutile, on the one hand, and the victims of repetitive violence (father and son meet the same fate at the hands of the same perpetrators) who are virile men, on the other, is curious. Why does the woman, who represents government, made to outlive its future? The answer could go the way of either the feminist cause or the right-wing effort to further entrench strong republics ordained by matriarchs. 

But all this deserves to be discussed in a dissertation. What is important is the undeniable truth that Nora delivers her most auspicious performance here since Bilangin ang mga Bituin sa Langit in 1989. Granted that some of her gains were the better ones in the barren landscape of the period, it must be said that Nora could not speak of a single creditable venture in the ’90s worth her legend, notwithstanding the unexpected moments in Andrea, Paano Ba ang Maging Isang Ina and The Flor Contemplacion Story. The acting prowess of the country’s acknowledged Superstar would sign off during the decade, replaced by tired responses and mannerisms best suited to impersonation. It is here in Naglalayag that the actress redeems her stature and the command of her vast talent. The performance is shorn of affectation and is nearly flawless, from the subtle movement of neck and eye to respond to importuning, to the firm tone of an officer of the court who metes out sentences, and on to the catatonic wailing of a pregnant widow confronting the coffin of her soul mate. 

Critics in the preview would whisper that this is Nora Aunor in a Vilma Santos role. Which is quite true for two reasons: that Vilma’s persona is more amenable to Dorinda’s instincts and that two of the films of the director wrestling with the theme of a “scandalous” May-December romance (Sinungaling Mong Puso) and the myth of menstrual blood (Tagos ng Dugo) starred Vilma. But Nora’s turbulent involvement with a younger man in real life is testament enough that she embodies this temperament as well. And that it is she, more than Vilma, who is inclined to flesh out the process of menopause (idiomatic translation of naglalayag) and mortality (the horror of age)—as well as of youth and allure—as personal and sociological afflictions, a motivation that reminds us of local titles like Halik sa Paa, Halik sa Kamay; Raquel at Rafael; Ligaw na Bulaklak; Mrs. Teresa Abad, Ako Po Si Bing; Totoo Ba ang Tsismis?; Tag-araw, Tag-ulan; Nagsimula sa Puso; Alaga; and Bayarang Puso; among others.

Indeed, no other actress since Erlinda Cortez, the wartime icon of Bagong Maestra vintage who had supposedly known the Stanislavski method, can hold a candle to Nora Aunor’s flame as she lights her way to a frontier all her own, contra mundum—against the world. But there is sadness in this illumination. As she plucks what seems to be a Forget-me-not in her garden at the end of Naglalayag, she realizes that she can only live her love in memory and that she cannot have it all. Not all women discern such gift at the moment of their gender’s proclamation and their body’s corruption.

- Manila Standard Online, June 22, 2004

Photo credit: www.regalfilms.com

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