Monday, June 12, 2017

Contemporary Philippine Cinema at MoMA: Thy Womb

It is hard to believe we are talking about ancient practices like polygamy and dowries with respect to a nation as worldly and Roman Catholic as the Philippines, but this is Tawi-Tawi under discussion, the southern-most archipelago province of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). Don’t worry, polygamy is only legal for Muslims and polyandry is safely verboten for everyone. An aging barren first-wife will try to make the best of circumstances by taking an active role in the selection of her husband’s second wife, but it is a bitter pill for her to swallow in Brillante Mendoza’s Thy Womb (trailer here) which screens during MoMA’s film series, A New Golden Age: Contemporary Philippine Cinema.

To add irony to injury, the infertile Shaleha often serves as a midwife to the pregnant island women. After years of trying to conceive, Bengas-An is determined to try with a younger, healthier second wife. Sadly, his prejudices against adoption preclude that option. Given the importance of children as a source of support to the aged, Shaleha relents, but she assumes the primary responsibility for screening potential brides. She will also find herself scrimping and borrowing alongside Bangas-An to raise the necessary dowry.

During the course of Thy Womb (talk about a heavy-handed title), we see Shaleha care for Bangas-An when he is sick, toil like a yoked mule on his behalf, and even face a pirate attack while they are fishing in the open ocean. And how do you think Islam rewards such faithfulness?

Dear, of dear, this is a difficult film to watch, because it is so inevitably tragic. (Tellingly, Mendoza apparently couldn’t bring himself to administer the final indignity, but it is unambiguously implied.) Of course, Mendoza is culturally sensitive to a fault. He takes great pains to show how the islanders live in concert with nature and the seas. He also captures the color of their ceremonies with an ethnographer’s eye. That still doesn’t change the fact you clearly do not want to be an old disposable wife in the ARMM.

Nora Aunor is considered a Philippine national treasure—and it is easy to see why in Thy Womb, even though she completely disappears into the role of Shaleha. It is a courageous, openly vulnerable performance, with nothing that would appeal to a thesp’s vanity. Viewers will want to slap Bembol Roco’s Bangas-An, precisely because he is so believable. They really feel like a couple with decades of hardscrabble history together. It should also be noted Lovi Poe makes quite an entrance as Mersila, the prospective #2, who threatens to de-stabilize the equilibrium.

Thy Womb is often striking to look at—perhaps even too much so. There are considerable interludes in which Mendoza soaks up the local color and traditions rather than develop character or advance the narrative. However, the power of his intimate but extreme marital drama is undeniable. Recommended for those who are genuinely concerned about women’s rights internationally, Thy Womb screens tomorrow (6/13) and Thursday the 22nd, as part of MoMA’s Philippine film series.