There is an anomaly that plagues the story of Ang Larawan (The Portrait), making people question its moral and intention. Like anyone who has waited months for the release of what is to become the best musical event of the Filipino film industry for 2017, I was also intrigued about what exactly is the image painted on the portrait of the Marasigans. While the lens of the camera never showed a clear picture of the actual portrait in the movie, the dialogue of the characters revealed enough information about the art and the artist himself. In a conversation between Candida (Joanna Ampil) and her childhood friend Bitoy (Sandino Martino), the former describes the subject of the portrait as an image of Aeneas carrying his father Anchises out of the burning city of Troy. Candida offered a further interpretation of the painting, saying the two characters represent the painter Don Lorenzo Marasigan who happens to be his father. The painting was unofficially named in the story as The Portrait of An Artist as A Filipino. It is also the title of the classic Nick Joaquin play upon which the musical film is loosely based.
Bitoy threw a controversial question to Candida after she briefly discussed the history of her father’s artwork: If it is a portrait of a Filipino artist, then why is it that the inspiration of the painting has a Western and Homeric origin? Don Lorenzo could have painted about any aspect of the Filipino culture since the apparent object of the narrative is to promote the identity of Filipino art, and yet he chose to use a fragment of Greek myth to deliver his curious message. The only way to deal with the seeming inconsistency is to accept the obvious paradox of the story that even Don Lorenzo, who claims to be a Filipino artist, does not hold pure local breed. He is the representation of the dilemma of Filipino art which is the imbalance of unique identity and foreign influence. It was established in the story that Don Lorenzo is a Filipino painter who dedicated his talent to Western market. In fact, the portrait he gave to his daughters Candida and Paula (Rachel Alejandro) is the only artwork available for Filipino spectators since all his previous paintings were distributed right across the big cities of Europe.
The discussion surrounding the identity of a Filipino as an artist is particularly significant in the setting of the story. Ang Larawan was set at the time when the walled city of Intramuros in Manila was preparing for the imminent occupation of foreign troops before World War II erupted. During one of the moving musical numbers of the movie, Candida and Paula lamented over the death of Filipino ideals and artistic views. Throughout the story, they shared the screen with characters who have traded their craft and creative endeavours in exchange for a more lucrative career in commerce or politics. The dominant advocacy of the story is the upholding of Filipino culture on the verge of war where everything appears to be less important than survival. Ang Larawan stresses that pursuing political or commercial profession is tantamount to abandoning one’s artistic potentials to lead a more comfortable life.
Candida and Paula were not spared from the tempting promises of an affluent life. There was more than a single instance in the movie when both the Marasigan sisters were convinced to sell the painting of their father and free themselves from the cruel chains of debts. Despite the insistent effort of their two other siblings Manolo (Nonie Buencamino) and Pepang (Menchu Lauchengco Yulo) to have the painting of their father sold, Candida and Paula resisted, hence contra mundum.
The subject of Don Lorenzo Marasigan’s painting is paradoxical to the basic message of the film because Ang Larawan promotes the identity of a Filipino as an artist and yet the painting itself was inspired by Western culture. This observation can only lead to an obvious conclusion: Perhaps the portrait is not really about being a Filipino artist but being an artist in general. The reason why Don Lorenzo did not provide detailed instruction to Candida and Paula as to what they should do with the painting is that he wanted to let them decide for themselves. The portrait represents Don Lorenzo’s conscience as an artist, showing how he himself had resisted the pressure of society.
The journey of the film has its fair share of paradoxes. Ang Larawan had a rough start with 25 movie theatres across the Philippines dropping the film in less than a week after its premiere. Despite the commercial challenges it encountered, Ang Larawan managed to bag six awards in the 2017 Metro Manila Film Festival, including Best Picture, Best Actress (Joanna Ampil), and Best Musical Score (Ryan Cayabyab). With the support of all the people who believed in its advocacy, Ang Larawan is now in its fifth week of screening here in the Philippines and it just recently premiered in several movie theatres in the US. Indeed, the story and songs of Candida and Paula continue to yell contra mundum across the country and the world.
Check out the details of the international screening of Ang Larawan here: anglarawan.com