The 1950 play A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino by the prolific Filipino writer Nick Joaquin might be the closest thing the Philippines has to a national play in the same vein as America’s Death of a Salesman and the United Kingdom’s The Mousetrap, all three of which happen to be written within the same period. It has been widely studied in English classes in the Philippines and countless local productions have been staged over the years — even a musical version that was recently made into a film. Flash forward 15 years after the play’s premiere, and a film version of the play was directed by Lamberto Avellana, who had also directed the original production by the Barangay Theater Guild, which he had co-founded with his wife Daisy, who plays one of the lead roles (they also co-wrote the film adaptation under pseudonyms). Both Joaquin and the Avellanas would later receive the Order of the National Artists of the Philippines, which is bestowed to Filipinos who have made significant contributions to the development of Philippine art, so this legacy is another thing that the film has going for it. The film was recently restored under the supervision of Mike De Leon, an acclaimed director in his own right (most non-Filipinos might know him from his very brief appearance in Wim Wenders’ Room 666), who has a personal connection to the project, as his father produced the film (the De Leon family had also founded LVN, one of the country’s first major film studios). I recently had a chance to watch this restoration when De Leon madeit available to stream for free for a limited time on his Vimeo channel, which is itself a great repository of classic Filipino cinema.
The gist of the plot takes place in pre-WWII Manila a few months before Pearl Harbor. Candida (Daisy Avellana) and Paula Marasigan (Naty Crame-Rogers, the latter still alive and kicking at 98 as of this writing) are a pair of spinsters living in a house tending to their sick father, a once-illustrious painter named Don Lorenzo Marasigan (Pianing Vidal) who has since stubbornly secluded himself on account of an artistic drought, and now they have to make due with the financial support from their older, more upwardly mobile siblings who insist that they sell the house and rent out a room to a playboy musician named Tony Javier (the enigmatic Conrad Parham, who later had a bunch of American TV show guest credits through the early ’70s and whose current status is unknown even among the film’s surviving team). The title refers to the painting Don Lorenzo made in his prime, which is prominently displayed in the house, an image inspired by Greek mythology of a young man carrying an old man who both resemble the painter (the painting actually remained unseen in the stage version). The painting also provokes dialogue among the characters on its meaning and symbolizes the crux of the plot’s main conflict between tradition and modernity when one of the sisters develops feelings for their boarder Tony, who plans to sell it to an interested American buyer.
Its theatrical origins definitely shows given the stagey direction and the at times histrionic acting that you might expect from a Tennessee Williams production, though the play itself was also a memory play, bookended by narration from a young journalist named Bitoy Camacho (Vic Silayan, years before his terrifying role of the patriarch in Mike De Leon’s Kisapmata) who grew up with the Marasigan family and is sympathetic to their plight. What’s also unusual about this production is the dialogue, which is entirely in English. This was a conscious decision by Avellana to set it apart from the Filipino films being churned out at that time in order to appeal to a more sophisticated and intellectual audience. Just like in Hollywood at the time, the Philippines was also undergoing a major upheaval then among its big film studios (some of them closing down with LVN transitioning to a post-production outfit) coupled with the rise of independent film producers. The film ended up a box office failure, though it still received good notices from critics. Still, this is a fascinating artifact from that period of Philippine cinema given how sorry the state of film preservation is in my home country. This is a film that puts focus on the importance of family, also reflected behind the scenes with two of the Avellanas’ children working as assistant directors. A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino is an elegiac tale of Old Manila right before the war that also reflects on the continuing struggles of the Filipino identity across cultures and generations that in the end would invoke the recurring Latin phrase used in the play: “Contra mundum!” (Defy the world!).
For those curious to check this out, I recently stumbled to this link to the entire film that someone uploaded on the Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/APortraitOfTheArtistAsFilipino
Also check out this documentary short narrated by the Avellanas’ daughter on the making of the film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RcjFaSSwd-0