A sincere call for environmental protection and the rights of displaced indigenous communities, "Brutus" sweetens its sometimes labored messages with a charming coming-of-age romance and eye-catching images of threatened beauty on the Philippine island of Mindoro.

A sincere call for environmental protection and the rights of displaced indigenous communities, “Brutus” sweetens its sometimes labored messages with a charming coming-of-age romance and eye-catching images of threatened beauty on the Philippine island of Mindoro. A solid helming debut for editor Tara Illenberger, this entertaining yarn about two kids caught up in the illegal logging trade is a worthy fest addition and has claims for specialized tube play. Pic won the special jury prize at Cinemalaya and the Netpac award at the Hawaii fest. Domestic release date is yet to be confirmed.  

Fact-based movie’s title is the name given to laborers — many of them juveniles — hired by unlicensed loggers to drag lumber through forests and transport it by raft to distant destinations. Forced from traditional land onto much less productive soil by these illegal operators, many inhabitants have no option but to work for those directly responsible for their suffering.

Such is the case with Adag (Timothy Mabalot), a clever 13-year-old who needs to buy medicine for his sick brother, and Payang (Rhea Medina), a girl of similar age whose elder brother has gone missing while working as a brutus.

Leaving their village, where food is scarce and illness widespread, Adag and Payang accept a pittance to ferry a load of wood to buyers located four days downriver. The journey gets off to an exciting start, with the youngsters expertly negotiating tricky rapids before Adag’s overconfidence causes the vessel to break apart, leaving the frightened duo stranded in the jungle.  

Crisis brings out the best in the kids. Once the tears have subsided, a lovely bond starts to form between headstrong Payang and resourceful Adag, who’s determined to make up for creating the mess they’re in.

Rites-of-passage trek to safety is eventful, with the children crossing paths on several occasions with an army unit  searching for Milo (Yul Servo), a doctor who has fallen in with the New People’s Army. Less certain with big-picture political and environmental messages than with its tender depiction of blossoming young love, the script awkwardly casts army patrol leader Sgt. Sarosa (Ronnie Lazaro) as a tree-hugging idealist whose speeches about corruption and land degradation sound too much like press releases.

That said, there is much heart and good humor in the way Sarosa and his talkative men help the youngsters, and real tension develops in the home stretch.

Natural and affecting perfs by the non-pro juvenile leads put a memorable face to the film’s pressing cultural and economic issues. Striking pictures of lush virgin land lying in the path of chainsaws does the rest. A spare, haunting score by Joey Ayala is the standout of a pro tech package.

Brutus 

Philippines

Production

A  Cinemalaya Foundation presentation of a Bonfire production, in association with National Commission for Culture and the Arts, Film Development Council of the Philippines, Roadrunner Network, 7th Films. (International sales: Ignatius Films, Toronto.) Produced by Fiona Borres, Tara Illenberger, Jay Abello, Marya Ignacio. Executive producers, Borres, Geraldine Barrera Deocampo, Ronel Baylon. Directed by Tara Illenberger. Screenplay, Illenberger, Arah Jell Badayos.

Crew

Camera (color, HD, DV), Jay Abello; editors, Fiona Borres, Illenberger; music, Joey Ayala; production designer, Fritz Silorio; sound (stereo), Mike Lim. Reviewed at Hawaii Film Festival (Green Screen), Oct. 12, 2008. (Also in Cinemalaya Independent Film Festival.) Running time: 109 MIN.

With

Timothy Mabalot, Rhea Medina, Ronnie Lazaro, Yul Servo.

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