Movie review: Film within a film in musical 'Damaso'

Fred Hawson

Posted at Nov 22 2019 05:34 PM

The cast of 'Damaso'

Movie producer Ms. Lulu (Aiko Melendez) is asking her in-house director Joey (Nyoy Volante) and scriptwriter Ferdie (Marlo Mortel) to come up with a more profitable follow-up to their last award-winner but box-office dud film. They come up with the idea to make a film centering on Fr. Damaso, a character from the Jose Rizal classic novel "Noli Me Tangere." Outside this movie within the movie, problems of modern society are referred to, such as the issue of family abandonment and OFWs and of drug addicts and EJKs.

When I first saw advertisements about this film online, especially about the iffy choices in the casting of the Noli characters, I was frankly not too excited about watching it. However, when I heard that it was going to be an original musical film (with music and lyrics all by director Joven Tan), that certainly peaked my interest to give it a chance. There are very few original Filipino musical films in our theaters, and for that this deserved our support. 

There was a song right off the bat in the first few minutes of the film, with Nyoy Volante singing "Susunod na Bayani" when he pitched his idea for the next movie to Ms. Lulu. In the next scene, Joey and Ferdie brainstorm while caught in heavy traffic, and Marlo Mortel burst into the song "Pagbabago." Both the song melodies and the singing was very good, so from that point I was in good spirits about watching this film, no matter how things get.

The "Noli Me Tangere" scenes began like how Rizal's novel began, at a gathering in Kapitan Tiago's (Leo Martinez) house where the guest of honor was Crisostomo Ibarra (Jin Macapagal), who studied in Europe and had now returned home with idealistic plans of building a school. When Ibarra was introduced to Padre Damaso (Arnel Ignacio, without his toupee), the old friar was immediately antagonistic against him, his deceased father Don Rafael, and his relationship with the fair Maria Clara (Riva Quenery). 

Along the way, we get introduced to familiar characters "Noli" characters like Pilosopo Tasyo (Lou Veloso), Sisa (Vina Morales) and her sons Basilio (Noel Comia Jr.) and Crispin (David Joshua Lansang), Elias (EJ Falcon), Dona Victorina (Pinky Amador) and Don Tiburcio (Jon Achaval), Dona Consolacion (Carmi Martin) and Padre Salvi (Mon Confiado). Running parallel is the present day stories of Ferdie and his OFW girlfriend Jenny (Mj Lastimosa), Ms. Lulu's employee Perry (Ketchup Eusebio) and his drug-addict father Lauro (Allan Paule), and Lulu's friend Ms. San Andres (Irma Adlawan), who was an OFW recruiter.

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Acting by the veteran character actors in the cast was mostly proficient, although some were prone to excess (like Vina Morales and her antiquated "iyak-tawa" portrayal of the Sisa stereotype). Acting neophyte Jin Macapagal's very weak projection as the lead character of Crisostomo Ibarra hampered the energy of this version. That famous scene of Ibarra holding a knife against Damaso's neck had absolutely no fire at all. When I saw the scenes between Macapagal and EJ Falcon (as Elias), I was thinking if it would have been better if they traded roles (or not). 

Despite the title, the film did not really give any additional dimension to Damaso's character. Even his two solo songs "Kung Kayo" and "Ako...Ako...Ako" did not really make any impact on me even if Ignacio was singing these songs himself. On the other hand, the love songs were the best in the soundtrack. Ibarra sang soulful ballads like "Hanggang Dito na lang Tayo" and "Hanggang Dulo" but Macapagal was just lip-synching the voice of Khalil Tambio. The song sung by Jenny to Ferdie over the phone "Konting Tulog na Lang" was beautifully sad, with Mj Lastimosa lip-synching the voice of Emie Conjurado. 

There was sincere effort to faithfully present the Noli story most Filipinos know since high school. The final parts about the fates of Ibarra, Maria Clara and Damaso were played out instead of just narrated in letters as in the book, but it could have been elaborated a bit more since this was new. Budget limitations were evident in the costumes and production design. Most of the time, the director would divert our attention from them by shooting the actors closeup. The quality of the cinematography and sound were better than expected. 

As social commentary, it tried to connect certain scenes in Noli to the present, like how the abusive guardia civil were juxtaposed over the "operation tokhang." There were several subtle and passing digs at the present administration, appreciation of which depends on your politics. The ending smacked of irony, when even after all the OFW issues depicted, the film seemed to say that hope is still found abroad. Overall, I appreciate the Herculean effort of director-writer-composer-lyricist Joven Tan in this passion project of his, although there is still a lot of room for further fine-tuning. 6/10.

This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."