Sa pusod ng dagat (1998)

reviewed by
Murali Krishnan

In the Navel of the Sea

[Screened at the Cinequest Film Festival 9, San Jose]

[1.5/4.0] (dialog in Tagalog, English subtitles)

The remote islands of the Philippines are a beautiful place. Life there is simple, but not easy. Although the people live in the standard definition of poverty, there is a richness to their lives that is missing in what is commonly called civilization. This story is narrated from the point of view of Pepito, a young man living on an island. Pepito's father died as sea when he was young. Because his mother is the island's midwife and he has no female siblings, he has been forced to become an apprentice midwife, which is highly unusual for a male. This occupation keeps them busy because the families of the island are continually having children. Some of the young adults are drawn to life in the big city as an escape from the boredom of the island, and although Pepito travels to the city due to his love of the travelling schoolteacher, he is eventually drawn back to the place he belongs to.

Although the story has the potential to be compelling, the film squanders its opportunities by choosing to squeeze in as much melodrama as possible. This predilection is demonstrated early when the tragedy of Pepito's father's death is dwelled upon for much too long. In fact, several exceedingly tragic turn of events take place in the story, thus making the whole narrative feel manipulative. The inclusion of elements of magical realism, like functional voodoo dolls and a woman giving birth to a snake, further made me feel removed from the film. Also adding to the feeling of detachment are the many poor acting performances, which made me feel I was watching amateur actors rather than real characters. To be fair, there is probably a cultural context to the story that the film builds upon that I missed, and I have not seen any other Philippine films to compare it against. The cinematography cannot be faulted, as the stunning beauty of this tropical paradise is well presented.

Not recommended. It probably will be enjoyed by fans of magic realism, and it probably captures some of the spirit of rural island life in the Philippines, but it is hampered by stiff acting, plodding story, and overwrought melodrama.

(c) 1999 Murali Krishnan
The Art House Squatter

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