Review of Sonata (Peque Gallaga and Lore Reyes, 2013)
Jaime Oscar M. Salazar
Appearing onstage at the Arena di Verona for a performance of Rusalka, widely renowned soprano Regina Cadena, in the titular role, opens her mouth to begin a rendition of “Měsíčku na nebi hlubokém” (“Song to the Moon”), only to hear her voice crack, falter, and wither away, prompting the audience to erupt into loud jeers and boos—much like the water nymph at the center of the opera by Czech composer Antonín Dvořák, she is rendered mute and scorned. After failing in her attempts to find a cure for the baffling affliction that has caused her mortification at one of the most famous amphitheaters in the world, Regina retreats to her ancestral sugar estate in Negros Occidental, where, fueled by cigarettes, alcohol, and the difficulties arising from her relationship with a married man, she sinks ever deeper into a misery that borders on madness.
In a bid to assist and support Regina through her anguish, her secretary Cora, who oversees all the affairs of her family’s business in Manila, flies in with Jonjon, her young son, in tow. It is the presence of the boy that proves essential for the gradual recovery of the despondent diva from the vagaries of self-exile; after an unpromising first encounter, the two strike up a friendship that awakens in Regina the resolve to bear up through her loss and the courage to begin life anew, including by singing again—qualities that come to the fore when, later on, a much greater tragedy occurs.
By unfolding along the foregoing lines, it would be fair to say that Sonata is rife with the potential for mawkishness of the highest order. That it manages to rise, and, in certain parts, even soar above bathos is tribute to all involved in its making, most notably Cherie Gil, who puts on a bravura performance as Regina, employing a calibrated theatricality as her character moves from despair to delight, from fragility to fortitude. The film does not rest on her shoulders alone, of course: among the ensemble, Chino Jalandoni, who plays Jonjon, is particularly noteworthy for being able to hold his own in his scenes with her—an easy rapport exists between them onscreen and he provides a gentle, refreshing contrast to her intensity.
It must be underscored, however, that in view of its preoccupation with its main characters and the closeness that develops between them, Sonata does not contain within it the resources to embark on an incisive interrogation of the social rhythms that animate the world that it represents. Especially significant as the film is set within a sugar plantation, the shortcoming becomes most palpable in the cinematographic treatment of the vast fields surrounding Regina’s opulent mansion and the destitute laborers that tend to them: they tend to constitute mere scenery, picturesque exotica, which have no doubt contributed to the facile and facetious declarations regarding the self-evidently salvific capabilities of art and nature that have appeared in many reviews of the film.
At best, some space is created for Regina to grapple with issues pertaining to the feudal system that prevails, unchallenged and undisturbed, throughout Sonata. For example, Regina and Cora are about the same age and grew up as teenagers together, but whenever they interact, Cora refuses to address Regina in familiar terms despite being invited to do so, and stands by her rather appalling servility to Regina, citing her lifelong debt to Regina’s mother for taking her in as a member of the household staff and providing for her college education. During such moments, which lay bare the scale of the asymmetry of power and privilege between them, whether Regina realizes that she, to draw from Forster, stands upon money as upon an island, and that many others are down below the surface of the sea is far from certain: she does not appear to be driven to existential anxiety about her status as an artist of the rentier class, but one could choose to take heart in the bewilderment and distress visibly etched upon her face—having grown aware of the oppression that is bound up with and sustains her life and art, there might be hope yet for this “queen of chains”.
Jaime Oscar M. Salazar is a graduate student of the Department of Art Studies at the University of the Philippines Diliman. He works for an international humanitarian organization.
Editor’s Note: This review is part of a series of reviews of outstanding films of 2013 and 2014 that we will feature here in the run-up to the YCC Citations Ceremony on April 23rd. Earlier reviews have been featured for Badil (here and here), Porno (here and here), Pagpag, Lauriana, Quick Change, Ang Kwento ni Mabuti, Debosyon, Babagwa, Norte: Hangganan ng Kasaysayan, Mga Anino ng Kahapon, and the 2013 Best First Features.