The art and life of Ishmael Bernal

By Pablo A. Tariman, VERA Files

The late filmmaker, now National Artist for Film Ishmael Bernal, stars in a new documentary called "Walang Dulo, Walang Himala."

Directed by Sari Dalena and Keith Sicat, the documentary film is about the colorful, if, controversial life, of one of the geniuses of Philippine cinema.

Among others, the film -- initiated by the Concerned Artists of the Philippines -- recalled the martial law ban on Bernal's "Manila by Night" which was retitled "City After Dark" when Mrs. Marcos learned the film was being invited to the 1981 Berlin Film Festival.

"It was a shame that my film was disallowed by the government in the Berlin film fest," recalled producer Lily Monteverde (known in the movie circle as Mother Lily) in the documentary.

Among the testimonials heard in the documentary were those by actor-director Behn Cervantes, National Artist for Literature Bienvenido Lumbera, filmmakers Marilou Diaz-Abaya and Nick de Ocampo, Jose Ma. Sison, actors Nora Aunor, Vilma Santos, Elizabeth Oropesa and Bernardo Bernardo, among others.

The documentary opened with scenes from Bernal's first film, "Pagdating Sa Dulo" (1971) starring Rita Gomez, Vic Vargas and Eddie Garcia.

Garcia likes to think that Bernal's first output was his assessment of what ails the Filipino film industry and indeed it was. At the time, the so-called 'bomba" (bold) movies were making a killing at the box office while serious filmmakers like Bernal were largely ignored.

In the documentary, Santos admitted that working with Bernal brought out the best in her as an actress. "She made me do this scene in 'Relasyon' that was really tough as it was unpredictable. I think Bernal was the first director to risk putting the character of The Mistress as The Heroine. In the past, the roles of mistresses were mere punching bags of The Wives in many confrontation scenes in Filipino movies," she added.

Abaya recalled how Bernal (a love child) sought out his biological father to ask help when he got a scholarship to study in France. The meeting started with Bernal telling his father, "I believe I am your son."

Oropesa pointed out Bernal knew every details of any project once the camera starts grinding. "Those details will unfold in his watchful eyes and you as actor should do justice to them or else…"

Some testimonials confirmed Bernal was capable of hurling things on the set if actors don't live up to his expectations.

"I think the longest kissing scene I ever had was making it with Eddie Garcia in 'Mister Mo, Lover Boy Ko' shot in a moving yacht. He reminded us that there should be no distorted lips in the kissing scene," added Oropesa.

Bernardo, seen in the film "City After Dark" romping with Orestes Ojeda and another male lover, said Bernal always has a philosophical approach to anything he does even in bed scenes.

But Bernal's sense of humor was something else.

In an earlier interview, Bernardo opined: "Bernal's sense of wit and satire is of the grand style. Ang galing-galing niyang mag-dedma ng mga witticisms, raised eyebrows and all, and with that omnipresent cigarette. With a dramatic toss of the hair, swak ang target niya."

The late National Artist for Theater Rolando Tinio described Bernal's sense of humor as acerbic. Recalled Tinio during the wake for Bernal: "Because when some sense of values he holds dear is assaulted, the master satirist in him emerges. Bernie is definitely a colorful personality but the color of his personality stems from something very deep. It is not just an external thing."

Film director Marilou Diaz-Abaya redefined Bernal's sense of humor: "Most of the time, it is sick and black, sometimes very cynical but always so rich and enriching even at its blackest. The sense of humor and satire in his films gives you extraordinary explorations and insights about the most ordinary thing like a chaotic traffic."

His first film, "A, Ewan, Basta Sa Maynila Pa Rin Ako," was aborted due to a falling-out with his first producers, then movie couple Eddie Rodriguez and Liza Moreno of Virgo Production. The couple wanted the original script revised here and there, and the then very young Bernal could only take so much.

In his last film "Wating," a mayor ravishes his young find in a roomful of religious icons. It was probably his way of unmasking politicians with high religious profile but who, in reality, were the opposite of piety.

On the whole, "Walang Dulo, Walang Himala" by Dalena and Sicat plumbed into the depth of Bernal's heart and soul.

The screening at the Bantayog ng mga Bayani last September 30 coincided with the 74th birthday of the filmmaker who passed away last June 2, 1996. The directors — Dalena and Sicat — said the docu was still in progress and will be finished in November.

(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for "true.")