As the applause died down for Ang Larawan, the cinema was transformed into a real-life musical—the workers chanting as they picked up the empty containers of popcorn and soda, a group of friends joked around in falsetto, and couples made post-screening plans as a duet.
Such is the power of a good musical—not only does it elicit applause, but it makes people live in its music long after the credits have rolled.
If Ang Larawan looks and sounds old, it’s because it is.
Ang Larawan is not new material by any measure. It traces back its origins to a 1997 stage production called Larawan with a libretto (or the text of a musical theater production) written by National Artist Rolando Tinio and music by Ryan Cayabyab. It follows the story of Candida (Joanna Ampil) and Paula Marasigan (Rachel Alejandro) as they struggle to make ends meet in pre-World War II Intramuros. Their father, renowned painter Don Lorenzo, leaves the sisters a self-portrait that attracts the attention of numerous buyers, including an unnamed American and the government willing to set up a trust fund for the Marasigans should they donate the artwork to the state.
Larawan, in turn, was based on a 1950s play by another National Artist, Nick Joaquin, called A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino. Tinio and Cayabyab did a splendid job transforming Joaquin’s words into lyrics and songs for the stage, which translated well for the film version. And though the film looks and sounds old, as a period piece should, it never feels old.
Best meant for the stage
While Ang Larawan is not the best Filipino movie ever made, it may be the best-made Filipino film in quite a while. As the opening montage of old Manila scenes fade into the warm-tinted hues of the actual movie, one cannot help but marvel at the clarity and the crispness of the image. The colors do a good job of pulling you into the world of American-era Philippines. The set design and costumes immerse you further into the film's reality, bringing the entire world of Ang Larawan to life. Aside from a few rough uses of slow motion shots, thescenes flowed smoothly from start to finish. The movie also makes masterful use of the singular location that is the Marasigan house, giving viewers different angles to keep the movie visually interesting. Musically, while being vastly different from his more commercial work, Cayabyab shows his genius once again and proves that it’s only a matter of time before this movie is associated with one more National Artist.
The material, however, was made for, and will remain best performed as a stage production. Director Loy Arcenas, who aside from being a director is also a Broadway theater set designer, valiantly attempted to translate the magic of theater to the silver screen which, to be fair, is a near impossible task. When musicals work on-screen, they usually do with large, sweeping sets and grandiose production numbers that make full use of the tools available to the medium. This particular script relies on a single setting with a few actors, making it perfect for the more intimate setting of the stage.
Even in the casting, the movie shows it few flaws when non-theater actors take the spotlight. While we consider Paulo Avelino as a more than capable actor, his performance is just not at par with Ampil, who is a West End staple (Miss Saigon, Les Miserables, Jesus Christ Superstar) and Alejandro, who is a local theater veteran. Even the bit roles played by Cris Villongco and Aicelle Santos, both singers by trade and with musical theater leads under their belt, severely outshine Avelino.
Definitely a classic
However, bagging the Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Musical Score, and Best Production Design awards leaves no doubt about how this movie has elevated the local scene in terms of production quality. The team behind Ang Larawan has given us a gorgeous and thought-provoking film which, regardless of a few faults, and with lessons about art, family, and sticking to our ideals in the face of society’s pressures that all ring true 67 years after the original material was released, should claim its rightful place as a classic piece of Philippine cinema.