Wednesday, 6 June 2007

Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros, The (Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros, Ang) (2005)

There is a folksy feel about The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros. For a coming of age movie whose central character is a cross-dressing pre-teen who grows up in the crime-ridden slums of Manila with his loving family (dad and 2 elder brothers run an illegal lottery, steal and sell cellphones, and aren't beneath a little bit of robbery and extortion if business goes south), there is surprisingly very little angst, guilt, or much social agitation - either for the plight of the downtrodden underclasses whose only means to survival is to be criminal, or the cross-dressing effeminate subculture in certain parts of the Philippines. At the same time, equally and perhaps far more astonishing is how this movie manages to charm and warm hearts, despite its angst-free, guilt-free, surface-deep delivery of its story about the cross-dressing, sashaying Maximo and his family.

Perhaps it boils down to director Auraelus Solito, who has spent more than a few years revisiting his indigineous tribal roots in Palawan, and the folk theatre practice he started there with his people. What we see in this film is the sort of charming but somewhat awkward and unschooled aesthetic (the use of digital cameras without a conscious desire to showcase the high def look, a drama set in a slum without any neorealist goals) that is extreme in its simplicity to the point of coming across as unschooled - in other words, Solito has achieved with his folk theatre and indigineous background, what should be seen as a filmic version of naive art.

Like Maximo, who traipses the streets of Manila's Sampaloc slums, the film breezes through its 102 minutes with childlike innocence and lack of artifice, taking time to saunter through Maxi's playacting as a girl - cooking for his family, buying groceries, dressing up with pals for a make-believe beauty pageant, watching pirated melodramas on a neighbour's DVD, and his expectant excitement at getting teased by his family, friends, and neighbours. These slice of life moments are in fact the best parts of the movie, because of their unaffected charm. When the plot begins, it is as though naive art has been animated into film. It has to do with the new neighbourhood cop Victor striking up a friendship with Maximo that poses problems to his family business. What follows is probably unsurprising to any filmgoer or even afternoon soap watcher, but in fact, the second best part of this movie has to do with the straightforward, uncomplicated, and even naive manner in which the plot unfolds and how dramatic scenes are shot, without any foreshadowing or narrative sophistication. It's as though Solito, reaching deep within his indigenous roots, has succeeded in transfering the naive quality of folk art into film itself - by no means a small achievement, and the most compelling reason why you should watch The Blossoming of Maximo Olivero.

That's not to say there aren't any blemishes on the film. Of minor interest to us is the film soundtrack, which consists of jingly guitar sequences that could very well have come from a spaghetti western. It fits the easygoing nature of the naive film, until you realise after a few bars of the spaghetti showdown music is playing in a scene that doesn't and isn't supposed to have any tension in it, for example. It's a minor blemish, and some might take it as a feature of the naive mode of filmmaking in this movie. I'm more than willing to overlook that if the director had sustained this naive mode for the entirety of the movie - near the end, there's this inexplicable move into more symbolic or even sophisticated storytelling that is extremely jarring to audiences, and doesn't quite gell with how the story and its artistic direction have been moving for some time now. It is entirely to the strength of the director's naive vision that this brief moment doesn't spoil our vision of an artless film, and it is the larger part of the movie that stays in our minds.

First published at incinemas on 5 July 2007

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