Ishmael Bernal and Religious Interpretations
Ishmael Bernal and Religious Interpretations
Ishmael Bernal’s films have received countless acknowledgements throughout the years because of his unique style of “working out patterns of symbolic details” (Lumbera 25). And through these patterns, Bernal was able to portray his views on things as an auteur. This paper examines his interpretations of religion and religious activities through his films. But this only includes three of his works: Manila by Night (1980), Himala (1982), and Hinugot sa Langit (1985). These three films’ devotional approaches are analyzed by both their mise-en-scene and fabula.
On that note, religion as tackled in this paper only pertains to the Philippine religion of Christianity/Catholicism, since Bernal’s films appear to be only on the Catholic’s view. How did Bernal attack Catholicism? Why did he represent the country’s most widespread religion in that manner? What are the implications of his works on the era during such films were distributed? How do these films affect the contemporary time? And what do these films impose on the society and on the religion majority of it believes in?
Hence, this paper has these films examined through the eyes of a spectator, and relates that analogy to Bernal’s own philosophies as an auteur. Religion in Mise-En-Scene and Iconographies Through the apparatus theory, Bernal’s religious interpretations in his works can be examined. Ponsford’s Film Theory and Language from media. edusites. co. uk says apparatus theory suggests that film is created to illustrate different ideas and that everything has meaning even starting from the camerawork up to the editing.
Manila by Night is a drama film made by Bernal in 1980. It is a multiple-charactered film where the characters’ existences in the city were unveiled as they live by the ruthlessness of drugs, poverty, adultery, and lust. In Manila by Night, Bernal constantly used iconographies and effigies of divine entities in several sex scenes through elaborate camerawork and editing. An example is a scene where a couple (Adelina, played by Moreno and Pebrero, played by Ojeda) who routinely cheated on each other made love while religious icons peered over them (Santos 21).
There is another sex scene where instead of figures, Bernal focused a shot on a chaplet necklace worn by the indolent college guy (Alex, played by Martinez) for a few seconds just before he had premarital sex with his girlfriend (Vanessa, played by Alajar). Bernal not only used these icons in sex scenes. In one scene where the neurotic mother of Alex, Virgie (Solis), trashed their home when she found out he was doing drugs, multiple shots of religious statues were shown simultaneously with the scene of flying plates and broken furniture in the screen.
Hinugot sa Langit also has a remarkable mise-en-scene in terms of religious interpretations. It is a film about infidelity, unwanted pregnancy, and abortion. In the scene where Carmen (Soriano) was rushed to the hospital after attempting to commit suicide, the disparity between the two conflicting characters of Aling Juling (Solis) and Stella (Austria) was clearly depicted. Aling Juling, being the sanctimonious that she was, gave the feeble Carmen her Holy Bible, hoping that it helps Carmen as it did to her.
Seconds after Aling Juling left the room, Stella put a bag of apples on top of the bible as she jokingly referred to it as “holy mansanas (apples)” which may be interpreted as the apple Eve took from the treacherous snake in the Garden of Eden. The style Bernal had in Manila by Night was still used in Hinugot sa Langit. There was the scene of Mang David’s (Ventura) child’s wake where an image of Christ hung over Carmen and Mang David’s backs as they talked about the latter’s debts from Aling Juling.
There’s still that style but other sightings of the religious icons and statues were not shown in that ambiguous manner anymore; instead they were shown conspicuously to prove a point like every time Aling Juling conducted prayer meetings and worship time. The irony in showing religious images and sinful acts simultaneously is an apparent symbolism of the societal hypocrisy towards faith and Christianity. Morality Issues on Manila by Night, Himala, and Hinugot sa Langit These three films are all packed with morality issues and what are morality issues if there is no religion?
Morality, I believe, is bound by the norms and rules of whatever religion an individual believes in. Therefore, people do what for them is “right” because the religion they keep their faith in tells them to do so. Himala is a story of a girl named Elsa (Aunor) who claims to have seen the Blessed Virgin Mary on the top of the very hill where she was found by her non-biological mother years ago when she was still a baby. Since then Elsa started to “heal” people through the use of the power that was allegedly bestowed upon her by the Virgin Mary.
She was situated in a small town called Cupang where the soil was always dry because of a “curse” from long time ago. Since then people came flocking to Elsa’s house to seek treatment from her miracles. She had her own followers and a bunch of detractors. In the end, when she faced piles of troubles—from not being able to “heal” anymore to being raped along with her best friend who later on committed suicide—she came clean and announced that there is no miracle, that it is the people who create their own miracles.
She was shot dead at that same moment. The morality issues in this film is particularly apparent during the time when documentarist Orly (Manikan) battles with himself whether to have Elsa and Chayong’s (Centeno) rape video shown to the public. In the end he seeks help from the priest, which only made it clear that his decisions still depended largely on the “Catholic opinion” even though he was a self-proclaimed atheist right from the start. Manila by Night touches more morality issues than Himala.
Since it is a film using a multiple-character format, the struggles each persona faces vary. There was a cheating guy (Pebrero), a liar prostitute (Adelina), a hypocritical ex-prostitute (Virgie), a happy-go-lucky gay (Manay Sharon), a dope-pusher lesbian (Kano), a blind whore (Bea), a college dropout (Alex), and his girlfriend (Vanessa). Their characters differ from each other but what’s uncanny about it was that their lives intertwine one way or another.
Set in the city during a time when people’s freedom was being suppressed, these characters faced the question of what to do in times like that. Whether they hold on to their principles and strive to live for the good or just continue their dishonest lives to be able to endure everything and coexist. In a country where Catholicism is dominant, what Bernal showed in Manila by Night questions the values the religion upholds for its followers.
The ending of the film where after all the mayhem that happened in the city during the past night seemed to be forgotten and the characters are portrayed as monotonous citizens living their routinely-charged lives is a strong point for proving how people trapped in the confusion of what’s good or evil can act as two-faced individuals who eventually become victims of the system. Hinugot sa Langit, on the other hand, tackles a more brazen topic that’s related to religion: abortion.
When Carmen found out she was having Jerry’s (Tantay) child, she was faced with only two options: one is to keep it and the other is to abort. The problem the film earlier gave was that Jerry was already married with someone else and he made it clear right from the start that he didn’t want anything to do with the child Carmen was carrying. This, on top of the incessant urging of her straightforward cousin Stella, pushed Carmen to the edge of option number two. But her landlady, Aling Juling, insisted otherwise—saying abortion is a sin to God.
As Carmen’s pregnancy became relatively closer to three months (which is the point when a mere embryo becomes human according to the abortionist) she began thinking about the issue of whether abortion is already an act of killing or not. But eventually, she chose to have abortion. Near the end of the film where she pounded on Mang David for stabbing Aling Juling to death, Bernal used a brilliant camera shift from Mang David’s staring face to Carmen’s while she was yelling, “Wala kang karapatang pumatay ng tao! You have no right to murder anyone! ),” as if giving the former a reason to say that she did not have any right to kill her child either. As Oggs Cruz put it in his blog, “Hinugot sa Langit may be branded as preachy and anti-abortion but in reality, the film has side stories that suggest a more pressing issue: societal hypocrisy. ” This is not only apparent in the abortion issue but also in Aling Juling’s actions. It’s just that, as Cruz again puts it, “abortion is the most telling of issues.
The Philippines being a prominently Catholic nation declares abortion as criminally and morally wrong yet funnily, the practice is unwrittenly accepted among women who are time-pressed with a decision. ” Elsa and Aling Juling While Manila by Night’s interpretations of religion banks largely on its mise-en-scene, what Bernal created in Himala and Hinugot sa Langit were characters who seemed to embody the “divine” and through them, Bernal showed how false devotions and idolatry can be misleading.
Elsa’s alleged involvement with the apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary made her just as acred as the holy mother of Christ in the people’s eyes. She became, in an obvious way, the people’s source of blind faith that led them to their own pits of darkness as shown in the last part of the film where healthy and sick people alike experienced a stampede that caused them physical pain. This false faith is also ostensible in Aling Juling’s character in Hinugot sa Langit. Even from the start of the film, her character already proved to be a hypocrite. She dressed conservatively, regularly attended prayer and worship meetings, firmly discouraged Carmen to do an abortion, and constantly spoke about the Divine.
But she also wanted to have the informal settlers removed from her land at any cost just to be able to build a chapel, claiming it is for the greater good. Aling Juling proved to be the perfect devotee, but failed to act as a true child of God for the other people; and there lies the biggest fallacy built in her persona. There was also one scene where Carmen and Aling Juling went into a brief screaming match about how should the former handle her problems.
In the one line of Carmen saying, “Ano pa bang gusto Niya (pertaining to God), ano pa bang gusto mo?! What else does He want, what else do you want?! ),” the character of Aling Juling seemed to be a symbolism of the “god” Carmen had come to believe in. Instead of the all-powerful, all-knowing One, because of her problems, Carmen landed on believing Aling Juling’s preaching as that of God’s. Elsa and Aling Juling both died at the end, and both by being brutally attacked. What I see in this phenomenon is the attempt to “kill off” the wrong and misrepresentative beliefs brought about by these two characters, and probably the only way Bernal suggests to do that is through a vicious, one-time manner.
Bernal as Auteur This paper is not about Bernal but about the works of Bernal. But since he is an auteur, understanding his background is essential in understanding the concepts behind his works. The auteur theory proposes that the director is the author of the film and that the director is the primary creative source, therefore the films produced express the director’s distinctive vision of the world (Pramaggiore and Wallis 398).
Therefore, his politics mirror his representation of religion, thus making his films a reflection of his own beliefs. According to Bayani Santos’ Bernal as Auteur, Ishmael appreciated the values of Gregorio Aglipay and Catholicism. He also admired the disciplines of Iglesia Ni Cristo but criticized it for its exploitation of religion in politics. It was also said that he “respected Catholicism as faith, but always qualified it with a historical reminder of its political and economic crimes against the nation” (Santos 19).
It was also said in the same article that Bernal’s view of shallow Catholicism among Filipinos as facts of Philippine life was not just mocking jibes against superficial religiosity but rather “accurate descriptions, as synecdochical of Philippine reality” and having the satirical impact arrive after a realization by the audience that, indeed, the descriptions are ‘us’ (21). Bayani continued on to saying that Bernal’s politics are “deeply buried in many of his works” (31). His politics involve not only his aforementioned views on Philippine religion but also his involvement in communism.
This notion is perceivable in the three films being analyzed by this paper. In Manila by Night, Bernal took jibes on Martial Law more than anything. In Hinugot sa Langit, he “showed the desperate situation of the poor in a script that scrupulously avoided overt political commentary” (31). In Himala he managed to speculate a Marxist view of religion as an opiate when Elsa’s death became a dismaying reversion to mass hysteria and fanaticism (31). Bernal’s Films then and now These three films were produced during the second golden age of the Philippine cinema, during the years that mark off the end of the Marcos Martial Law regime.
Bernal’s films were acclaimed during those times because both the films and timing were apt to belong to the cinema that recognizes the struggle as the most gigantic cultural, scientific, and artistic manifestation our time, the third cinema (Solanas and Gettino 47). This is what makes Bernal’s films timeless. The impact these films made during those times were huge. Bernal revealed how the Marcos regime exploited the Filipinos. This is overtly seen in Manila by Night, where his depiction of the supposed city to signify the “New Society” is the exact opposite of it.
The term “New Society” claimed that the dictatorship had eradicated corruption and transformed Philippine society (Lumbera 359). This same “New Society” was also exploited, although for good reasons, by Bernal in his film Himala. According to Lumbera, Himala criticized the manipulative religiosity of this society which “drew the people’s attention away from the realities of poverty, violence, and moral decay” (359). This, however, is still manifested in the present time. There is this one scene in Himala that is applicable to both the past and present times.
When people started coming to Cupang for Elsa and Elsa’s “apostles” used the water Elsa blessed for profit, it was a hypocritical move on the side of Elsa and her followers to lure people into giving them money when all they were meant to do in the first place was to offer treatment for everyone who asked for it. The past screams about the pretentious “New Society” and the present stages the scene in real life whenever such religious items or services that are supposed to help them are still sold for amounts to the people. (e. . : a priest’s service fees, blessed rosaries, mass guides) Another thing that might have helped in the success of Himala is the fact that superstar Nora Aunor played the lead role. In the Noranian Imaginary, it is said that Himala is as much about the popular hysteria mediated by the idol Nora Aunor as it is about the mass hysteria endemic to Catholicism as held by many (Tadiar). People saw Elsa in Nora and Nora in Elsa—the same poor, unfortunate protagonist who strive against all odds to defend herself and achieve goals.
In these times, Nora may not be that same girl many Filipinos used to idolized, but the imprint she left on Elsa’s character is so known to almost every Filipino as “that” girl who everyone admired. Elsa’s death at the end of the film may be read as liberation from such faith, since she made confessions about the inexistence of miracles prior to his death. But the people’s continuous idolatry in her after she passed away seems to be a symbol of the people of today—those who still continue hang on to false hope and devotion even after such devotion proves to be wrong.
As Patrick Flores puts it in Himala: Fall of Grace, “Himala is against the miracle and it is against the cinema. ” Hinugot sa Langit, lastly, also speaks of a timeless issue in Catholicism: abortion. The values the film imbibes a great impact on the beliefs of the majority of the Filipino citizen. The question of whether abortion is or is not an act of murder is still being debated upon until today. Bernal’s films speak of ageless and timely issues concerning the Filipino people and that’s what makes his films succeed not only in the era during which it was manufactured, but also in the present time.
University/College: University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 26 November 2016
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