J. Pilapil Jacobo
In Ecuadorian Demetrio Aguilera Malta’s novel Siete serpientes y siete lunas (1970), the Christ of the crucifix refuses to yield to his own gravenness upon the moment of speech. At some point, he seems to threaten to abandon the figure that the sculptor had assigned to him. His wounds can no longer be sustained in a relief so high in their fatigue. Outside the church, creatures of the most enormous testicles spar to ravage Santorontón’s final virgin.
Such scenes returned to me at the screening of Bikol poet Kristian Sendon Cordero’s debut feature Angustia (2013).
Rinconada showed me “the lost steps” to Santorontón. While Cordero’s film does not possess the saturnalian fervor of Aguilera-Malta’s marvel, it succeeds in concatenating a version of the surrea lwithin the sacred, and proceeds to tackle the mélange with risky seriousness and unquizzical confidence. Somehow I did wish the mahogany Christ would interrupt the priest’s benedictions and that the shamaness’s stones would turn out to be vaginal holes shrieking currencies out of a certain Inca coinage, but Cordero’s sudamericanese is contemporary, lavishing its already piquant accent with a prominently sibilant mannerism.
The sacerdote Victorino’s crime is akin to Amaro’s, and Gael Garcia Bernal’s incarnate is the diabolically tormented Alex Vincent Medina. Quite a stretch, if truth be told, but Cordero’s charms have been previously persuasive elsewhere, and whoever springs from the root of Crispin should be given the vastest opportunity at grandiloquy. He seizes that chance so well at the end of Act Two. All of the fury at the failure to preserve a tableau tropicaux was directed at the nonchalant aloe vera. I wanted to scream: spare the succulent sabila!
Set in 16th-century Rinconada, that region of the Bikol peninsula located between the cabeceras of Nueva Caceres (Naga) and Legazpi and most populated by the aboriginal Agta, Angustia surveys a vignette of parochial life during the early history of the reduccion, during which ethnic enclaves started to vanish in light of Christianized pueblos arresting the mountains where the Agta would take shelter and forage. Angustia is all about the autochthonous trauma that remains after all that clearing of the native encampment.
The autochthone is Dunag (Michelle Smith). Her nubility can only be anticipated by the Aztec Malinalli. She possesses an attunement to the highland tropics that ranges from the locus of mollusks to the epicenter of a tone so brassy it makes the body gyrate and refuse a bracelet strewn from the salt-white corral by Sikaw (a Victor Loquias who masters both the naive and the macabre), a pursuer in the tribe. Such knowledge can only be torrid, and Michelle Smith parses out the epistemes of such a habituation with so much relish that the character becomes an anachronism in the script that is written all over her deshabille. It is this kind of acting that distinguishes the film’s contribution to ethnographic surrealist cinema. The juxtaposition of heedless foliage and Smith’s maroon gaze cantilevering the filigree of fern makes the floral and the faunal kindred but at the same time out of joint in terms of vertiginous seriality. That the eroticism of the bosom is transferred to a delectation that hangs over the eye’s promontory is testament to that temporality when the indigenal, when something more is incepted elsewhere even after the exotic becomes so sure of itself, is born out of the always already indigenous body. I desire, Dunag tells one, and no unnatural offense is assured leverage at that contagion: looking. When one becomes a conduit of each that cannot be inhibited by shame, one cannot necessarily careen into sheer libidinal license. With those unsentimented eyes, and the somber carnality around the iris, nothing less or more, especially if it concerns prejudice, can invade.
Born and raised in Zambales, Smith is Filipina and African American, and musters the right amount of intellection from this position to coordinate the autochthone’s global racial destiny out of the archaic and into the ideology critique of the change that syncresy subjects the miscegene to complete. There is something awry then when her transport to the convent denies her of any chance to figure out what it means to be strategically defiant. There is incalculable consent and unmediated delight in the utterance of the Christian name “Josefina” when it is fundamentally a phonetic diminution of the fosterity of her rain: “Dunag.” Colleague José Mari Cuartero interjects: “Could the problem be an inarticulation of acoustic impression?” Michelle Smith performs an apparitional method, to a fault, that the error of the look must emerge by way of an vocable practice almost bereft of irony. Could this mistake be blessed?
That Dunag is murdered by her seductee, the sacerdote, is not so much a sensationalist gesture but a political act to mark out a historical incident the perfection of which, colleague Juan Ariel Goméz would intervene, is the neo-Europe that is the Argentine predicament. This is a second moment of the indigenal, plotting out emergent grooves in Guada (an indefatigably irreverent Jazmin Llana) and residual maneuvers in Natividad (a splendidly tremulous Maria Isabel Lopez). The indigene mediates between trickstery and shamanism and reveals the indifference.
The film is imperfect, for sure (a certain nostalgia lurks around the chromatic design that the palette seems almost incompetent if not for that raucous green), but to say that “[it] comes off as a very literary venture, the theories and frameworks fueling the narrative plain enough to see [sic]” is not only irresponsible, but also indolent. When the same automatic reviewer says “the movie just isn’t very good,” he surrenders to acknowledge some truths of the cinema that has failed him: the evil that resides in the colonial church. . .and the evil that debilitates critique and seeps into the writing of such a catastrophe. The filmmaker is said to be the most terrible child the literature of the Bikol peninsula has ever bred. One wished he would abandon the childhood, and forget the terror of this leave-taking, but with this text, there are growing pains, dealt with both recklessness and grace, which can be perceived. Cordero is no Aguilera Malta, well, not yet, but his Angustia is a frenetic assault to metropolitan tastes which, pace Montaigne, relent as a matter of habit, to screen barbarities.