A stirring musical drama set on the eve of World War II in Manila and centered on the cash-strapped spinster daughters of a famous old painter, “The Portrait” proves a handsomely produced big-screen adaptation of Nick Joaquin’s revered play “A Portrait of the Artist as a Filipino,” featuring classy melodrama and terrific tunes performed by a dream cast including West End star Joanna Ampil. A universally accessible tale about art, money, family conflict, national identity and female emancipation, “The Portrait” should be embraced by mature audiences but may not pack enough modern razzle-dazzle filmmaking technique to entice a critical mass of younger viewers. Domestic release details are pending. Festival programmers should check it out.
Written in English and first performed in 1955, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Filipino” has been a fixture on local stages ever since. This Tagalog translation directed by Loy Arcenas (“Nino”) springs from the 1997 musical interpretation starring Celeste Legaspi, who also appears here in a supporting role and serves as a producer.
As with most good musicals, “The Portrait” hooks viewers with an opening number that poetically establishes its physical and emotional terrain. In this case it’s a beautiful recording of Legaspi singing “Intramuros,” a hymn for the historic center of Manila that was built during Spanish colonial times and mostly destroyed in the Battle of Manila in 1945. As lyrics describe the locality’s importance in Filipino cultural and intellectual life, the film’s images switch from scratchy black-and-white archival footage to muted colors inside the Intramuros house of unmarried, middle-aged sisters Paula (Rachel Alejandro) and Candida Marasigan (Ampil).
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Compact passages of spoken dialogue and an invigorating mix of musical styles ranging from operetta to jaunty jazz-flavored tunes and soulful ballads relay the tale of how Paula and Candida have fallen on hard times. Their adored father, Don Lorenzo, a celebrated painter and party host, has not produced or sold anything in years. When young journalist Bitoy (Sandino Martin) calls on Paula and Candida, he’s told Don Lorenzo is confined to his room while recovering from a bad fall. Local gossip suggests he may have passed away.
Faced with crippling bills, the sisters have taken in a lodger, Tony Javier (Paulo Avelino), a dissolute piano player who hangs around with floozies Susan (Cris Villonco) and Violet (Aicelle Santos). To make matters worse, Paula and Candida’s selfish older brother, Manolo (Nonie Buencamino), and their haughty sister, Pepang (Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo), have abandoned all emotional and financial responsibility for the family.
Rolando Tinio’s lyrics and Ryan Cayabyab’s music create a highly effective atmosphere of doom, gloom and family turmoil before offering a ray of light. It turns out Don Lorenzo has in fact produced one, possibly final, painting. Titled “Portrait of the Filipino” — and never seen by viewers — it depicts mythological hero Aeneas carrying his father Anchises from the ruins of Troy.
Themes of art, beauty, loyalty and greed are vividly examined as friends and relatives gather to view the masterpiece and give their views on what should be done with it. For socialites Dona Loleng (Legaspi) and Elsa Montes (Zsa Zsa Padilla), it’s just another painting. Manolo and Pepang have already banked the price it might fetch. Tony Javier has found a buyer and cynically begins seducing Paula to seal the sale. On the other side of the equation is politician Don Perico (Robert Averalo), a former poet who abandoned his art for personal gain. His conscience has been profoundly affected by the portrait.
But no one speaks and sings more eloquently than Paula and Candida. Ampil and Alejandro’s voices and performances soar as the sisters resist the temptation of a quick fix in the belief that their father’s work represents something far more valuable than money.
Apart from a few draggy moments in which Paula and Candida’s parlous financial position is unnecessarily restated, this impeccably performed and crisply photographed tuner zips along nicely toward its highly emotional and tremendously satisfying finale. Clearly made with the utmost love and care, “The Portrait” is beautifully decorated and top-notch in every technical detail.