TL;DR: Ang Larawan is a stirring eulogy to Old Manila in the face of desperate times.
Ang Larawan (The Portrait) has a legacy of greatness behind its creation. It is based on A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino, a widely acclaimed Filipino play written in English by National Artist Nick Joaquin, which was then adapted into a classic movie by National Artist Lamberto V. Avellana. The play itself was turned into a musical called Larawan, The Musical with National Artist Rolando Tinio writing the libretto, famed musician & composer Ryan Cayabyab penning the music, & National Artist Salvador Bernal designing the set.
Ang Larawan follows its forebearer’s footsteps. As an adaptation of Larawan, The Musical, not only does it survive its transition from stage to film, it’s a moving tribute to an old way of Filipino life during the dawn of World War II that’s as masterful as its previous incarnations.
Set during the dawn of World War II, Candida (Joanna Ampil) & Paula (Rachel Alejandro) are daughters of Don Lorenzo Marasigan, a widely renowned painter whose fame & wealth allowed them to enjoy the good life. Their father centered his children’s lives around art & his ideals when they were young, while hosting parties with other members of the Filipino elite.
Alas, it wasn’t meant to last. Both Candida & Paula are unmarried, living with their father who hasn’t produced a single painting in years, putting them in financial trouble. They don’t have enough money to pay their bills or buy necessities that they have to rely on their brother Manolo (Nonie Buencamino) & sister Pepang (Menchu Lauchengco-Yao) for their expenses. They even opened up one of their rooms to Tony Javier (Paulo Avelino), a two-bit vaudeville piano player with big dreams. But after their father had an accident, he drew a impressive painting for Candida & Paula & turned himself into a recluse. Word got around about their father’s latest masterpiece & their house is now bombarded by onlookers, art critics, & potential buyers. The painting might be their way out of their problems, but neither Candida nor Paula are willing to sell their father’s precious painting to anyone; not even to Tony, who became a middleman to an American buyer willing to buy for a huge amount of money. However, their increasing desperation & the looming war might just push them otherwise.
At a first glance, setting up the conflict as whether two people are willing to risk their survival for a painting may not sound compelling for the big screen, but Ang Larawan gives us reasons to care. The family dynamic of the Marasigans is fascinating in itself & the movie leans heavily into it. Don Marasigan taught his children about his principles about art & culture & they either embraced it fully or rejected in tiny or huge ways, & now we’re seeing the fallout from their decisions. It’s reflected in the different ways they interpret their father’s latest painting, as they see their flaws & insecurities gawked & admired by the world at large. As different members of the Filipino society seek out this painting, their presence adds more dimensions to the movie. Their appearance is used to examine colonial Filipino society from different angles, especially those from a privileged background, & ask what does it mean to hold onto your values at a time or compromising them for a different one, when it’s easier to throw them away altogether to endure a world on the verge of collapse. It’s the old “art vs. commerce” & “integrity vs. prosperity” debate with much higher stakes, & while the conclusions the movie ends up with is a bit simplistic, it’s already emotionally involving since its discussions of art & integrity have been imbued by the human foibles of the Marasigans & the people surrounding them.
Especially when it’s done through song. The movie uses the same libretto & compositions from Larawan, The Musical, with the help of Ryan Cayabyab as the film’s musical director & the ABS-CBN Philharmonic Orchestra performing the score, & the jump to the big screen isn’t without its flaws. At times, it feels too claustrophobic & it doesn’t take more advantage of the freedom to play around in a three-dimensional space. The transition from one act to another can be stiff & awkward, but would play better with an actual curtain drop. It’s still heavily indebted to its theatrical roots, often to a fault.
But it’s the same quality that makes it excellent. The movie consists of people belting out their emotions through the gorgeous music delivered by Ryan Cayabyab & the ABS-CBN Philharmonic Orchestra, buoyed from great performances from the rest of the cast. It’s not subtle, but it goes straight for your heart, grabbing it & never letting go, without any pretense about its intentions. Not too mention this movie is filled with ridiculous amount of talent. Joanna Ampil deservedly won Best Actress for her role, & it’s no accident. Her Candida is fierce, stubborn, & often on the verge of breakdown, whose emotions swirl & shift thanks to their horrible circumstances. The only other worthy performer for the same award would Rachel Alejandro as Paula, who’s more soft-spoken & reserved yet equally captivating. Together, they bounce off & balance each other’s energies that’s arresting to watch. And this might be Paulo Avelino’s first musical role, he acquits himself nicely as the scrappy, charismatic Tony, who tries to sweep Paula off her feet to gain her favor. We’re barely even mentioning the likes of highly talented actors like Nanette Inventor, Noel Trinidad, Zsa Zsa Padilla, Sandino Martin, Menchu Launchengco-Yulo, Nonie Buencamino & more.
All of them fully realize the struggles of the people with the knowledge that Filipino society as they know it is about to end. Even so, Ang Larawan is a moving farewell to that era, one that speaks to our better judgment in the face of so much uncertainty & destruction. The world might soon be turned upside down due to chaos & violence, but it might be better to confront it with our integrity intact.