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Masla a Papanok begins with the appearance of a Muslim princess who escapes her arranged marriage and who hides inside the convent. She has to learn Spanish and Christian prayers and practices as a consequence of staying with the nuns. But she is a free spirit. There is ‘wildness’ to this young woman, in the manly strength she exhibits when she throws stones and aims accurately– hits and falls a fruit from a tree, in her sneezing, breaking the solemnity of a group of nun’s prayer, in her lying on grass and getting herself drenched in the rain. One day, one of her people tries to abduct her. That is followed by her people’s burning of buildings in the monastery, the act actually anticipated by the Spanish army, waiting for it to legitimise a counter-assault. The focus on the princess ends there (and is transferred to her young cousin and people). The black and white cinematography stops.
The second act gives us examples that show the relationships of masters and slaves, what distinguish them–like clothes and other ‘suggestions’ of power. Also, striking are two incidents which contrast Filipino and colonial masters: while a Muslim prince likes to play with slaves against the gentle reminder of his parents not to, a Spanish captain shows cruelty to a Filipino slave; he wants the latter to forge ahead in their mission, when the Filipino screams in pain from a leg injury.
In the last section, the bird finally shows up, and its apparitions are followed by deaths.
Masla a Papanok, a unique take on the story of a great bird that is believed to bring bad luck, is faulted by many critics for its abrupt transitions that splices the movie into two. But the ‘looseness’ adds to the mystery. The story also is linked by the aural accompaniments (birds sounds are present in many scenes even before the actual haunting cries of the great bird), by the camera angles, and by the appearances of the Muslim princess.
If we review the movie’s opening actions, the princess comes out tired from running, the hijab and robe hugging her petite features, the cloth like a thin skin, like a film, like a placenta, as if she were a fully-developed woman who has just been born, breaking a lush scene where a white horse grazes–that first frame mythical and paradisiacal.
What follows is a breathtaking bird’s eye view of the princess collapsing (her ‘fall,’ the black and white photography, and her flagellating herself later in front of the altar suggest the position of the creators on her ‘defection’ from her Muslim religion), then the nuns rush to help her. That camera shot substitutes for something or someone–a bird or a god observing the events in this woman’s life from an exceptionally high tree. Soon she will be an instrument to an act of retribution–as I would like to think she becomes. From symbolically being a ‘baby,’ she returns later, her back framed magically, arms positioned in such a way that they look like they are to unleash energy, her body shape outlined by moonlight. That could be her ‘transformation.’
The movie seemingly mystifies more what’s already mythic and tantalizes with its seeming ambiguity. But I think the film also underlines this misconception about the bird’s presence, our prejudices, our black and white concepts of darkness and beasts getting in the way of how we should interpret those bird cries and sightings. It is not the crying or the predatory bird sound or an image outerwoldly or our superficial ideas of spirits that create or dictate the next terrible events. The movie also tells us that the bird signs are there so we can prepare, the bird is actually on our side. In the present context, the film substitutes for the bird, to warn us of something more terrifying than our past or today’s violence: and that is, (also as the explicit final phase of the ‘movement’ of the princess) our forgetfulness of events. Remembering should have saved us from a lot of today’s and future miseries and injustices.
~ Robert Bryan Cerda
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