Brilliante Mendoza’s competing entry to the 69th Venice International Film Festival and official entry to the 2012 Metro Manila Film Festival, Thy Womb, has been received in diverse ways since its first screening, ranging from institutional and critical acclaim to popular indifference to contentious critique.
Set in the island province of Tawi-Tawi, the landscape of Thy Womb slowly unravels through the aural: the sound of waves as a baby is birthed into the world, the whirr of a motorized banca cutting through the tide, the spatter of rain breaking the stillness beyond.
These waters of life are the very habitat and home of Badjao couple Shaleha (Nora Aunor) and Bangas-an (Bembol Roco). This floating world between sky and sea envelops the ironic barrenness of Shaleha, a respected midwife in their humble village. The opening scene ends with Shaleha carefully putting aside the child’s discarded umbilical cord as a keepsake: a reminder of her own simultaneous power and failure to bring forth life.
Shaleha’s literal and figurative departures from the daily rhythm of living revolve around this perceived fall from grace: venturing to other shores with Bangas-an in search of a fecund second wife. This is a journey more transactional than personal, capped by the marriage to Mersila (Lovi Poe) and a substantial dowry that will sap not only their meager resources, but sever their remaining ties as well.
This whole conjugal narrative unfolds at a meandering pace, underscoring the tedium of waiting. The film intersperses its climactic points with cinematography representing the ecological and the social: panoramas and underwater shots abound with ethnographic portrayals of both social ritual and community life. It juxtaposes footage of wildlife, scenes and objects that are not only documentary but symbolic in function: pawikan eggs and rainbows, a desolate chapel and a busy mosque, the weaving of mats which subsistence fisherfolk turn to in the lean months.
At best, these scenes complement the symbolic silence that permeates throughout the film. There are no histrionics and thespian dialogues for most of the time. Much of the interrogations within the narrative remain unsaid and alluded to, like the currents of Thy Womb’s tranquil seas. The pristine underwater shots merely hint at the ruptures brewing beneath: a massive butanding hovering beneath the couple’s humble boat, the spurt of blood from a pirate’s gunshot wound dissolving into patterns in the water, a frantic carabao on the verge of drowning. What are made visible are merely ripples on the surface; sporadic interruptions—gunfire disrupting the pangalay dance at a marriage, a squad of soldiers passing by—merely hint at the real dissonance and turmoil unfolding beyond in this part of the archipelago.
The film presents undoubtedly poignant performances by Aunor and Roco, which have won for the former two other film citations for 2012. Their exchanges of words as husband and wife are sparse, whittled down all throughout the narrative by the screenplay (Henry Burgos); the real tragedies, jousts and departures are best left unspoken and seen. Roco’s stoic weariness betrays both a quiet desperation at the absence of progeny and sense of impending loss, suddenly sealed by Poe’s brief but pivotal presence in the end.
Much of the film’s power, however, is drawn from Aunor’s mastery of countenance and gesture: how her character becomes a disturbingly gendered embodiment of the maternal and the sacrificial. This is mirrored in the marriage ceremony she attends as a guest, where woman is transformed into bride. For my husband’s happiness, I’d do anything, Shaleha announces later, proclaiming an appalling selflessness in the face of her transactional and personal dealings. In the end, there are no words for anticipation, acceptance, and the finality of departure; indeed, Shaleha is painful to watch in her silence.
Yet it is also precisely in its very conception of silence that Thy Womb waxes problematic, if not potentially controversial, as a form of critique. For the semiotics of its breathtaking scenery, biodiversity and ethnographic documentation still point to the implied conception of Shaleha’s world as the Other: geographically and conceptually removed from urbanity, contemporaneity, and familiarity.
While the film consciously veers away from representing overtly and unabashedly exotic spectacles reminiscent of the early 20th century colonial gaze, its representation of personal loss and pain as a largely aesthetic encounter transforms Shaleha’s story (and the geopolitical implications behind it) into an exquisite vista that one does not interrogate, but merely beholds. It is only in problematizing such silence that one can come to closer terms with Bangas-an’s real loss: there is no redemption, only rupture, in this final birth.