Seeking to frame an impassioned cry for peace within a traditional epic narrative, veteran Filipino director Marilou Diaz-Abaya's 19th film is a Catholic's attempt to present the Muslim point of view in the long-standing religious war on the Philippine island of Mindanao.

Seeking to frame an impassioned cry for peace within a traditional epic narrative, veteran Filipino director Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s 19th film is a Catholic’s attempt to present the Muslim point of view in the long-standing religious war on the Philippine island of Mindanao. Structured around the exodus of a Muslim family caught in the crossfire between army forces and Islamic rebels, pic alternates fast-paced combat action with tearful interludes of death and mourning. Despite its proselytizing point-making and sometimes clunky setups, pic proves curiously effective. Abaya’s all-stops-out effort to make her audience identify with the plight of the Islamic minority works well, thanks to her firm grasp of melodrama and superb thesping of her game cast. Nonetheless, “Moon” ultimately is brought down by its endless restatements of its good intentions. Hot-button topic may win pic limited arthouse or indie cable play Stateside.

Mindanao is home to the Moro, a Muslim minority in the only Christian nation of Southeast Asia, and religious conflict has been ongoing. In 2000, then-president Joseph Estrada declared all-out war against the rebels, escalating the violence and increasing the flood of displaced civilians. His successor, Gloria Arroyo, established a truce in 2001, but recent events worldwide have given the Muslim/Christian clash added resonance.

Pic, which takes place prior to the truce, walks an awkward line in its desire to validate the Islamic struggle for self-determination without validating its militancy. It counterpoises two brothers — Ahmad (Cesar Montano), an assimilated doctor, and Musa (Nonie Buencamino), a rebel leader — as they engage in angry airings of their choices and beliefs. Most of the screen time, however, is accorded to mellower sibling Ahmad, a doctor living in Manila. Ahmad unwillingly becomes leader of a band of refugees when his village is destroyed by vigilantes; his only child, Ibrahim, is killed in the raid. Pic subsequently and none too subtly proposes extended-family-of-mankind substitutes for Ahmad’s slain son, from Rashid, his teenage guerilla nephew, to an orphaned infant he helps deliver, to a Christian kid shown playing with Ibrahim’s yo-yo.

Ahmad, along with his nurse/wife (Amy Austria) and his indomitable mother (Caridad Sanchez), become the leaders of a ragtag assortment of the very old and very young, infirm and pregnant who must leave the destroyed village to find sanctuary elsewhere. The column wends its way through dense forests and burnt-out villages in search of sanctuary, surviving numerous run-ins with the army along the way. Sporadic encounters between Ahmad and his rebel brother slowly reunite the two.

Unlike Boorman’s “Beyond Rangoon,” which dramatizes the director’s outsider status in layered interactions between an American tourist and Indonesian natives, Abaya presents her Muslim clan as an Everyfamily. The little Christian boy, Francis (Jiro Manio), transported by accident into enemy territory, functions as a representative of the new generation who must be taught what Muslims are “really” like and sent back as an emissary to the Christian majority. Francis is the focal point for much storytelling. Ahmad, moving from person to person as he tends the wounded, affords a further, rather stilted, occasion for survivor tales of suffering and victimization (most of them true stories culled by Abaya during her months of research in the refugee camps).

Meanwhile, though, the film deposits a happy-go-lucky Catholic peace worker amidst the fray to guarantee Christian prayers accompany Islamic ones like some sort of cockeyed simultaneous translation.

Luckily, in counterbalance to the constant preachiness, the players, even the minor ones, are treated in intimate close-ups with the immediacy of really good soap opera. The brutal onslaught of bullets and mortar fire that send children screaming into the night provide a startling contrast to this up-close and personal emphasis on tears and trauma.

Tech credits are excellent, especially the lensing by Eduardo Jacinto, who does full justice to Abaya’s signature night shots, picking up glowing colors in the velvety blackness.

New Moon

Philippines

Production

A Star Cinema, PS Entertainment production. Produced by Marilou Diaz-Abaya, Nina Romualdez. Executive producers, Charo Santos Concio, Malou N. Santos, Margie Moran Floirendo. Directed by Marilou Diaz-Abaya. Screenplay, Diaz-Abaya, Jun Lana, Ricardo Lee.

Crew

Camera (color), Eduardo Jacinto; editor, Jesus Navarro; music, Nonong Buencamino; production designer, Judy Lou de Pio; set designer, Leo Abaya; sound, Albert Michael S. Idioma. Reviewed at Asian American Film Festival, New York, July 19, 2002. (Also in Metro Manila Film Festival.) Running time: 132 MIN.

With

Ahmad - Cesar Montano Fatima - Amy Austria Farida - Caridad Sanchez Rashid - Carlo Quino Lt. Ricarte - Jericho Rosales Musa - Nonie Buencamino Jason - Jhong Hilario Datu Ali - Ronnie Lazaro Francis - Jiro Manio
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