Act Of Faith
Rogue|March - April 2018

By confronting the climate of the martial law era, Ishmael Bernal and Ricky Lee’s legendary 1982 film Himala helped bring to public consciousness questions of belief, identity, and authority. Now, 36 years later, several artists are bringing Filipinos back to the town of Cupang at a time we need it most. Emil Hofileña speaks to the architects of the film’s latest revival to discover how they created the quintessential theater experience

In the beginning, there is darkness.

An eclipse has fallen over the dusty, drought-stricken barrio of Cupang. As the townspeople scatter in fear, a young woman named Elsa—an outsider in her already underprivileged community—hears a voice speak her name. She follows it to the foot of a dead tree on a hill and she falls to her knees. The eclipse passes and Elsa discovers that she has been blessed with the power to heal any affliction. But as she begins to perform her own miracles, the town only becomes increasingly divided, and Cupang plunges into hysteria.

As unflattering as this portrayal of a Filipino society may be, many of our greatest films are just as fiercely critical of the Filipino identity. Lino Brocka’s Maynila sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag follows a provincial boy looking for greener pastures in the city, only to end up a victim himself. Eddie Romero’s Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon? questions a farmer boy’s transformation into a “civilized” member of society. Ishmael Bernal’s Manila by Night reveals a city rife with addiction and poverty. And in 1982, Bernal’s Himala brought us to Cupang, a godforsaken land blinded by both faith and desperation.

Of course, one cannot remove these films from the context in which they were created. Struggling against a dictatorial regime that sought to mask suffering with progress, filmmakers under Ferdinand Marcos’s rule exposed what was being hidden. “I was in prison, 1974. 1976 ko sinulat ‘yung script ng Himala,” screenwriter Ricky Lee recalls. “Kaya it was full of anguish and suffering and injustice and questioning. Idolatry sa isang autocrat, sa isang magnified figure na susundan ng lahat ng tao—that’s very Himala. That’s very Elsa.” So the films released during the Philippines’ second golden age of cinema weren’t exactly critiques of the common Filipino. Rather, they were acts of defiance against a state that suppressed the people. In 1986, the collective voices would grow loud enough to unseat Marcos once and for all.

But instead of being filed away as relics of the martial law era, these films have remained active parts of our cultural conversation. They continue to be cited as seminal works for our cinema, while remastered editions continue to pop up at local film festivals. And Himala, in particular, has gained unlikely popularity over the last 36 years. Something about Lee’s script and Bernal’s vision tapped into a universal experience, and Filipinos everywhere continue to be given opportunities to see the film for themselves. Himala has inexplicably become a staple of Holy Week telecasts. Ten years ago, it was named the Best Asia-Pacific Film of All Time at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards. And in 2003, Lee returned to barrio Cupang to continue the story.

Lee’s original plan was to write a sequel with Nora Aunor reprising her role as Elsa, who, it would have been revealed, had not died at the end of the first film. But plans fell through due to Aunor’s schedule, and the sequel was shelved. Instead, Herbie Go, artistic director of Tanghalang Pilipino at the time, approached Lee with plans to adapt Himala into a stage musical for the National Theater Festival. Go had brought along with him composer Vincent de Jesus from Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA). Together, Lee and de Jesus would write the libretto. “Ricky didn’t have a copy of the original manuscript na e,” de Jesus remembers. “So he gave me a VHS [of Himala] at trinanscribe ko siya on a typewriter. Line per line.”

From there, Lee and de Jesus sat down to discuss which parts of the story would be sung and which would be spoken. For Lee, this was a chance to finally delve deeper into the characters he created over three decades earlier. “Sa film, what I had to do was put down all the urges inside me to express. Kasi si Bernal wanted it minimalist,” Lee explains. “Sa pamamagitan ng pagtanggal, sa pamamagitan ng pag-emphasize sa wala, I think naging mas klaro ‘yung meron. Pero noong ginawa ko ‘yung libretto, to some extent, I was able to express myself again.” While the film relied on Aunor’s performance to convey everything about Elsa’s character, the musical would clearly verbalize her intentions, her desire to belong, and her manipulation of Cupang. This was Lee’s first time writing a musical, and de Jesus’s first time feeling confident writing a musical.

“I had been with PETA since I was 15. But I was more of a composer,” de Jesus says. “‘Yung Himala ‘yung nag-push sa akin na—kaya ko pala.” While helping Lee bring out his characters’ voices, de Jesus understood that this didn’t mean Himala had to be any less challenging for the audience. “It’s not your typical musical. Himala is practically screaming, ‘Treat me another way,’” he states. So when de Jesus got around to composing the score for the musical, he knew better than to aim for catchy melodies or upbeat, spirited numbers. “My chord progression is weird. Lagi siyang diminished, unpredictable,” he explains. “Actually, kundiman ito e. It’s a contemporary sarsuela. Pero tinweak ko lang siya na hindi predictable ang chords, kasi I love jazz. So pinagsama ko ‘yung jazz chords and ‘yung kundiman melodies.”

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

RELATED STORIES

ALBERT INSISTS HIS MARRIAGE AIN'T OVER!

But Charlene signals she doesn’t want to be Monaco’s princess

2 mins read
Globe
October 04, 2021

STRESSED-OUT WHOOPI PACKS ON 30 LBS!

Is comfort food killing 200-lb talk show diva?

1 min read
Globe
October 04, 2021

SAFE & SECURE

Tuffy’s lockable Center Console Security Safe insert offers security for your stuff

3 mins read
Four Wheeler
November 2021

TRAGIC REASON SNL NORM HID CANCER 9 YEARS

TRAGIC comic Norm MacDonald had a secret reason for keeping his battle with the deadly cancer that killed him hidden for nine long years.

1 min read
Globe
October 04, 2021

Jeep Gladiator Rubicon

Second report: Many days of dirt

4 mins read
Four Wheeler
November 2021

ARROGANT ANDREW: I'M UNTOUCHABLE!

Claims immunity from rape charges filed by Epstein’s teenage sex slave

3 mins read
Globe
October 04, 2021

OVERLAND ADVENTURE 2021: PART 1

CLIMBING UTAH’S GRAND STAIRCASE

5 mins read
Four Wheeler
November 2021

TRUTH ABOUT FOX'S TUCKER – HE'S A LIAR!

Anchor admits fibbing but tries not to on TV!

1 min read
Globe
October 04, 2021

TECHLINE

DIFF DROP OR NOT I’m upgrading my lift kit from a budget Pro Comp kit to the Ironman 4x4 Foam Cell Full Kit (2–3-inch lift, new shocks, coils, full leaf pack, and carrier bearing drop kit) on my ’10 Toyota Tacoma Double Cab. The truck is my daily driver and weekend overlanding/camping rig. I don’t do any extreme offroading or rock crawling. Usually trails with softball-sized rocks at most.

5 mins read
Four Wheeler
November 2021

WENDY WILLIAMS' LIVING NIGHTMARE

Fears troubled talk queen is on brink again

2 mins read
Globe
October 04, 2021