Skeptics disappointed by the clumsiness of craft and the excess of theatrics of Burlesk Queen will have to revise their prejudices against director Celso Ad Castillo. Admirers of the wildly poetic, though erratic and often hysterical, works of the director of Nympha, Ang Alamat, Daluyong at Hagabat have reason to rejoice. Pagputi ng Uwak, Pag-itim ng Tagak, Castillo’s newest film, securely established its director in the ranks of Bernal and Brocka as filmmakers who have something to say and possess the craft and art to say it cinematically. Castillo’s Pagputi ng Uwak is a movie that is truly impressive this year or any other year. The title, Pagputi ng Uwak, Pag-itim ng Tagak is a traditional metaphorical way of saying “Never.” It is the first statement of the tragic theme of this tale about a class-divided (not “star-crossed”) Romeo and Juliet in a small Southern Tagalog town called Santa Ines in the mid 1950s. The screenplay is focused on the young music student Julie Monserrat (Vilma Santos), who has had to grow up without a father, in the care of two domineering old maid aunts (Adul de Leon and Angie Fierro).
As a young woman born in a tradition-bound town but raised in the modernizing atmosphere of Manila, Julie gropes towards maturity without benefit of guidance from understanding elders. Home for the traditional town fiesta, she meets the poor boy next-door, Dido Ventura (played by Bembol Rocco) whose passion and impulsiveness rush her into an elopement But Dido’s family has a long-standing grievance against the Monserrats who, through fraudulence in the past, had grabbed the Ventura property. When the young lovers ask for permission to marry, Julie’s snooty aunts make her choose between her present status as a rich single Monserrat, and an uncertain future as housewife of Dido. In a moment of indecisiveness, Julie gives up Dido and goes back to her music studies. At the university, Julie is visited by the elderly violinist from her hometown whom she idolizes. Maestro Juan Roque (Jonee Gamboa) has learned she is pregnant, and he has come to tell Julie that he is her father and then walks out on him. When she gives birth, against the wishes of her aunts, Julie decides to keep the baby and give the baby to its father. By this time, it has become impossible for the baby to have its father. Dido has joined the band of Huks headed by Kumander Salome (Lito Anzures). Driven by the desire to help his daughter out, Maestro Juan Roque goes to the Huk hide-out to effect a reconciliation between Dido and Julie. A quick night visit for Dido is arranged, and the lovers rediscover each other. Too late, for government agents have learned of the presence of the Huks, and a bloody shoot-out affirms the nihilism of the film’s title.
Castillo-watchers who had to cringe at the amount of its acting that Castillo allowed or demanded from his actors and actresses, will be gratified at the quiet intensity of the performances in Pagputi ng Uwak. Although one is never convinced that Vilma Santos can indeed bow music out of violin, her characterization of Julie displays the maturing talent of an actress fast learning to explore and shape her emotional resources in creating a character. Bembol Roco is disadvantaged by the script’s focus on Julie, but he impressively communicates the change in Dido from reckless teenager to hardened rebel. The acting highlights in the film, however, are provided by the three capable stage performers playing supporting roles. At long last Jonee Gamboa has been allowed to shed the irritatingly mannered caricatures he has been made to do in his previous films. As Maestro Juan Roque, he gives a serene portrait of a man who sublimates the turmoil of his inner life into the music he plays and composes in a performance memorable for its restraint and sincerity. Angie Ferro tends to be over-empphatic in places, but her portrayal of Miguela effectively keeps the role from degenerating into a contra vida stereotype by touching it up with humor that is broad yet never out of character. It is Adul de Leon, however, who emerges luminously as a character actress of the first magnitude. Her interpretation of Beatriz is a piece of complex character portraiture all the more admirable for having made a role of rather limited range so persuasively human.