As an open-hearted, even sentimental tale of a working-class woman making the most selfless of sacrifices to give her husband a child, it’s tempting to call “Thy Womb” the gentlest film to date from hard-working Filipino provocateur Brillante Mendoza. Then one remembers that it opens with a live human birthing and, later, graphically depicts the beheading of a cow by machete. Though a festival fixture, Mendoza’s work has struggled to crack the international arthouse circuit, and his forbiddingly titled latest doesn’t seem an obvious exception, despite typically arresting direction and a stoically moving lead turn from local industry legend Nora Aunor.
The helmer (billed onscreen, per usual, as Brillante Ma. Mendoza) last hit the Lido in 2009 with the strong old-age character drama “Lola,” the muted tone and strolling pace of which came as a surprise only months after the premiere of his drastically violent Cannes prizewinner “Kinatay.” Similarly, “Thy Womb,” which has more in common stylistically with “Lola” than Mendoza’s other recent works, reps a ruminative change of pace from a more propulsive offering earlier in the year, in this case the exploitation-tinged Isabelle Huppert starrer “Captive.”
That film’s grueling real-life childbirth scene was a talking point following its Berlin premiere, so when “Thy Womb” opens with a markedly similar one, expectations are set for another expert endurance test. As it turns out, however, the scene has more practical dramatic significance, as the middle-aged midwife delivering the baby is introduced as the film’s protagonist, Shaleha. Hers is a bittersweet occupation: Infertile herself, Shaleha has never been able to give her doting fisherman husband, Bangas-An (Bembol Roco), children. With her motivation not patently clear in Henry Burgos’ lean script, she resolves to find him another wife who can.
What ensues is part marital tearjerker, part cultural comedy of manners, as Shaleha’s search for her own replacement takes in much literal local color. Though the title references the Hail Mary — “Blessed is the fruit of thy womb” — the pic actually takes place among the Muslim community of the southern Philippines island of Tawi-Tawi, where marriages are routinely arranged between family elders, with often hefty dowries of cash, gold and tobacco in order. Much screen time is lavished on the fascinatingly staged rituals of the proposal and the eventual wedding, generally a riot of choreography and whirling, sherbet-colored traditional costumes, the visual splendor of these occasions belying the poverty of the region’s shanty-dwelling residents.
Political discord is felt in sporadic rounds of gunfire from marauding dissidents, one of which temporarily fells Bangas-An. Mendoza leaves these anarchic intrusions unsettlingly free of social context; perhaps the director is concerned about a more external focus crowding his affectingly intimate relationship study. He strenuously avoids judging Shaleha’s simultaneously courageous and anti-feminist decision to act as her beloved husband’s marriage broker, though Anour’s softly crinkled face beautifully registers the internal pain of her every decision in this curious process.
Working again with regular d.p. Odyssey Flores, whose water-proficient digital lensing negotiates picture-postcard skies and grubby boltholes with equal fluidity, Mendoza also acts as his own production designer, forging his unusual story world with just the right balance of the exotic and the authentic.