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Opening a movie with the sound of fabric milling machines and putting Nora Aunor inside the factory, with all those irritating noises and uniformed extras as laborers (or probably real factory workers), sets us into expecting a movie with social relevance. Somehow those who expect it to be as encompassing as An American Tragedy, a novel by Theodore Dreiser from which the story of the movie was based, might feel the movie to be an oversimplification of the novel in terms of content, the story turned only into a mere man’s (Phillip Salvador) moral corruption, a man’s premeditated plot to kill a woman he had impregnated, to continue his dream of living with a rich, glamorous woman (Hilda Koronel) he loved, a story stripped of the original’s ramifications and complexities.
But this is a Lino Brocka film. It can’t be inconsequential that some framing elements in the movie emphasize social class. Take for example the first time Phillip enters the mansion of his employer: He stands in the middle of the frame, then slowly he moves to the left, becomes smaller, the extent of the grand staircase and the white walls with some ornate details here and there dwarf him.
The same thing happens when Nora goes to confront Hilda in the same mansion. The camera surveys, with low-angle shots, parts of the house: the chandelier, the gilt details of the mirror, the grand staircase. What best choice to animate that inert grandeur than have a lady with high prominent cheekbones, with a hairdo like Farah Fawcett’s, descend the stairs and look down at that petite dark-skinned pregnant woman who wears a polka dot dress.
Those shots define social status. What might look like plain drama to us have these symbolizing elements.
In the movie, Phillip is studious and ambitious at the start. His good work record is explicitly stated by his boss during one of Phillip’s talks with him. In the second act he becomes a controlled man, devolves into a slave of his passion, and loses his moral conscience. The movie is primarily and supposedly his story, but with Nora and Hilda in the cast it is wise for the creators to decide to divide the story among the three and give them almost equal screen time, bookmarked by montages which focus on each actor. Nora stands out though. Her quiet scenes, especially when she dolls herself up to make herself more desirable to Phillip in the first montage, also that mid-range shot of her staring down at something while inside the factory, resolved to keep her out-of-wedlock baby no matter what other people would say, again cement her reputation as a great actress. The climax of the movie, her best scene, is the one that will be forever etched in the viewer’s mind.
It happens the day after a night in a hotel in Baguio. Phillip brings Nora to a quiet secluded place, at each major turn, mountain edges. Nora innocently picks flowers near a cliff, shouts to check if her voice will echo, extends her arms up to emphasize height, and mentions something like she’s close to heaven. She speaks about the place being romantic, and then realizes that the place could also be a good spot to commit murder. She pauses. The slit of her white dress opens before she slowly turns around to face Phillip. The slit or gap is ominous. Like a wound. The camera then shifts to Phillip who looks cold and slightly devilish, and that kind of face confirms her suspicion. She lets out and repeats words of love for him in a mix of weak, questioning, and accusatory ways, pleads for her baby’s life and asks him why he could think of doing an abominable thing even to his child. Then she steps back, fearful and panic-stricken, and begs him to proceed with his plan. All those nuances and shifts of feelings are in one quick stretch, until she shouts her last and plunges to death. It’s a difficult act to pull through, but Nora makes it all look very natural and effortless. The performance immortalizes her again.
For plotting or ‘committing’ a crime, Phillip is eventually sentenced to die. Hilda arrives to see her lover the last time, and says, “Kung inisip mo man iyon, ito ay dahil mahal mo ako (If you really did think about it (killing her), it’s because you love me).” Such tenderness to say that, when in fact it feels like she is really saying, I’m okay that you did it for your love for me. Nora’s character has her share of nasty words as well. “Pwede mo pang ipalaglag ‘yan (You can still have your baby aborted), “ she says when she learns that Hilda is also pregnant. These three individuals are moved by their love and passions that in some way, when the camera fleetingly captures an image of the Blessed Virgin in the final scene with Philip and Hilda, it’s as if the director and writer want to comment that the characters deserve their fates.
By extension, we feel Hilda to be somehow an accomplice to the crime, a selfish woman who has to go to the U.S. while her lover is being tried, so that she and her family could avoid being shamed in public. I don’t know. Even when there seems to be so much earnestness, love and remorse in both Hilda’s and Philip’s faces towards the end, our souls quietly rejoice instead in seeing their magnified faces suffer. We miss a presence similar to that of Hitchcock’s Rebecca but not as evil. She is gone, but her spirit still pervades the air and haunts us with the memory of her last scene. We want to resurrect her. We still hear her screams echo.