Overwhelmed by Alvin Yapan’s Debosyon (Cinemalaya 2013)

Debosyon posterLast Monday, my sister and I played hooky from ballet and had a Cinemalaya mini-marathon, catching 2 gala showings from the New Breed category: Alvin Yapan’s Debosyon and Joseph Laban’s Nuwebe. As some of you may know, we worked with Alvin, his producer Alem Ang and lead actor Paulo Avelino in their 2011 Cinemalaya triumph Ang Sayaw ng Dalawang Kaliwang Paa, where my dad Eli Jacinto did the choreography for the dance sequences. (Alem is my friend, which is how the project happened). So this viewing started as friendly support, but I’m also deeply stoked that Alvin and Alem are so deserving of our devotion, as everything they’ve been producing thus far have been works of utter genius.

Let me qualify that. I was once of the opinion that Philippine indies were all quite brilliant in their own right, but I realize that I’ve been lucky in that the films I’ve been seeing were pretty good. This realization came while watching Nuwebe, my streak-ender, which I think wanted to do too much, to its undoing. I mean, it wasn’t all bad – I loved the entire nuno sa punso element, but it didn’t really make any impact or even connect to the real story/issues of the story, it was just there. There were just too many things crammed into each other in that movie, too many long monologues about “Okay naman kami, siguro ganun lang talaga ang buhay…”, too many uncomfortably graphic visuals (I am compelled to vegetarianism after that horrible opening scene), too much love for Jake Cuenca, so much so that when Nadine Samonte reveals something telling toward the end, the big reveal loses its impact.

But, back to Debosyon. Like I said, utter genius. It patiently took its time setting everything up so that when this movie’s big reveal unfolds, you’re just “What the fuck?” startled out of your seat. Even with people saying, “It’s an encounter between catholic and pagan beliefs and practices…” and even with that shot of Mara Lopez as Saling standing in front of the Mayon volcano like the diwata you think she is in the trailer, I was not prepared for when she challenges Paulo as Manding’s declarations of love and shows him why she cannot leave the mountain.

Diwata ng Mayon

Mara Lopez as Saling in Alvin Yapan’s Debosyon. BTS photo borrowed from the Debosyon Facebook page.

The careful set up involved a beautiful illustration of life in Bicol, Alvin’s hometown, with Paulo as your typical Bicolano/hardworking farmer/Penafrancia devotee. Everything is connected: he is deeply religious and we feel the fervor of his devotion as sincere because he is praying for a good harvest. He brings a praying woman to try to “help” Saling’s otherworldly problem, and like any good Catholic devotee, she counsels him to seek guidance from the Lady of Penafrancia. And, as the movie’s tagline goes, you got to have faith.

The film is Alvin’s loving tribute to his hometown and its people, with the gorgeous shots of the landscape, the lush forest, the elaborations of the Penafrancia festival, and even Saling’s simple preparation of laing while in conversation with Mando. The entire movie uses the Bicolano dialect, aided by English subtitles; I don’t know the dialect myself, but I think this was successful, and Paulo and Mara Lopez pulled it off quite well, and it seemed to me they’ve been speaking this all their lives.

I always thought Paulo was awesome in Sayaw, how naturally he spoke and moved, far removed from how some older actors deliver lines like speeches in typical Philippine films (and telenovelas) of recent past (You know what I mean, the weird, stilted dialoguing that Quark Henares made a spoof of in his Keka). In Debosyon, Paulo shows us why he was deserving of the Urian win, and how he has grown even more from that. I also love how I believe that he is a native Bicolano diligently harvesting his fields and dejectedly selling orchids at the market, chopping wood for Saling, despite looking the way he does. It’s only when he’s in the Penafrancia mob that you might notice, hey, you don’t look like you belong there, but the determination in his eyes distracts you right away and you are convinced again.

Because Mara Lopez retweeted my Debosyon tweets, I checked out her Twitter profile and was a bit surprised at how she was packaging herself as an actress, more as a bombshell reminiscent of her mother, Maria Isabel Lopez (with whom I had an embarrassing fangirl moment recently when I commented on a Facebook post Alem made haha). I am more impressed then by her performance in Debosyon, because she is not that simple, demure barrio lass in real life. The only thing that may have betrayed her bombshell-ness was the first kiss with Paulo – I was like, “Laplapan na talaga, hindi pwedeng shy kiss muna?” But yeah, okay, they were caught up in the passion of the moment, sige na nga.

When the film ended, before the audience broke into applause, I said, “Ang ganda.” And it was. Somehow, it seems inadequate to describe a film as beautiful, but it was, and it was the kind of beauty that you were glad to have seen in your lifetime. So, go go, watch it. The festival runs till this Sunday, check out the screening schedule here.

Alvin, my sister Jacqui, and me at the CCP Main Theater lobby before the screening of Debosyon

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