Jaime Oscar M. Salazar
The appellation “Mrs.” is referred to as a courtesy title, but the woman who bears it, however willingly or happily, submits to the effacement of her birth name and the subordination of her personhood to her marital (and, sometimes, parental) status—a highly ritualized and widely socially accepted process that deserves greater scrutiny as to the degree of respect or consideration that it actually affords to the said woman. Mrs. (2016), directed by Adolfo Alix, Jr., engages the issues with which this form of address is fraught and resonates by way of exploring a complex set relationships—sororal, adversarial, filial, mentorial, and platonic—between women in the course of a relatively spare drama.
Chief among these relationships is that between a pensioner recently recovered from a bout of hospitalization, Virgie (Elizabeth Oropesa), and her resident caretaker, Delia (Lotlot De Leon). The house that they inhabit, overly large for two people and a gaggle of dogs and cats, shows many signs of wear and tear, in connection not only with its age but also with its being built over an active fault line—running along the walls are cracks attesting to structural damage.
In spite of the dilapidation that surrounds her, Virgie intends to continue living there, keeping faith with the memory of her father, who had bequeathed the house to her, and clinging to the belief that her son, Sonny Boy (Sebastian Castro), a communist guerilla who disappeared years ago, will surface one day soon. Her determination, if not obduracy, to remain draws her into intermittent bouts of antagonism with her relatives. Her younger sister, Glenda (Daria Ramirez), the legatee of the land on which the house stands, is eager to sell off her inheritance in order to mitigate the consequences of her spendthrift ways, not least among them the large debt to Virgie that she has racked up over several years. Virgie’s daughters, Marina (Rosanna Roces) and Jenny (Angelina Kanapi), believe that she would be better off staying elsewhere.
Delia, who for two decades has helped Virgie around the house and kept her company, is, in her own way, as unwavering as Virgie. When Delia discloses her plan to marry her lover at the forthcoming mass wedding ceremony sponsored by the local government—following the acknowledgement, prompted by Virgie, that she is three months pregnant—she is quick to provide assurance that she aims to stay in Virgie’s service. In the face of Virgie’s reluctance at this proposition, rooted in the notion that a wife ought to defer to her husband, Delia wears Virgie down with persistent pleading.
Oropesa turns in a fine performance as Virgie, displaying a formidability that is leavened with tenderness; whenever she is alone in the frame, which is often, she proves more than capable of compelling attention with countenance and gesture. De Leon, who initially essays her role as a kind of comic foil to Virgie, with an almost bovine naïveté, succeeds in making of Delia a figure of tragedy, heartrending and horrifying.
What is particularly striking about Mrs. is its penchant for meandering in and around a range of interiors—of houses, of restaurants, of a barangay hall—and dwelling at length on the mundane actions and interactions that its characters perform there. These mundanities point to well-established, and, at times, tedious routines in which men are, for the most part, spectral presences with varying degrees of influence. Virgie and Glenda rehearse longstanding resentments arising from Glenda’s waywardness, financial and otherwise, and Virgie’s stubbornness. Virgie and Marina squabble, over the telephone and in person, about Marina’s seeming deficiency of discernment in her choices: of partner, the layabout Benjo (Arvic Tan); of religion, by joining a cult; and even of how best to treat the ailing Justin, the “imported” cat that is beloved by Josel, Marina’s young daughter. Jenny, who resides in Vancouver, Canada, with her husband and two children, tries to coax her mother to join her permanently, as an immigrant, during one of their video chats. Virgie visits her friend Agnes (Anita Linda), an elderly activist who has also lost family members to state-sanctioned violence, to check on Agnes’s health and to exchange news. Virgie and Delia carry out household chores—for instance, watering the plants, sweeping the yard, looking after the pets, and preparing meals.
Even as Mrs. runs the risk of narrative unwieldiness, the film insists on the immersive moment, rather than the propulsive event, and this is what constitutes its achievement. With its sustained, painstaking focus on how its characters go about the dailiness of their existence—the use of lingering close-up shots to highlight the smallest flickers of thought and feeling is notable in this regard—the film renders anew the feminist slogan, “The personal is political.” It challenges viewers to reevaluate the intertwined concepts of “domesticity” and “femininity”, and their associated tensions and contradictions, as they play out, are negotiated with, or are resisted in the fluid, contentious realm of quotidian lived experience. How do institutions like marriage reinforce and perpetuate prevailing relations of power, especially in terms of gender and class? How does state repression manifest itself within and affect the private sphere, and how can this sphere be re-imagined as an arena for broader struggles? How can women establish networks of support between one another that circumvent, slip past, or subvert—however limitedly and fleetingly—the social mechanisms that seek to surveil and control their bodies, their homes, and their lives?