MANILA, Philippines – There is a fine line between devotion and obsession. Unfortunately for Pedro Calungsod: Batang Martir, it sadly mistakes the former for the latter.
Written, directed and produced by Francis Villacorta, Pedro Calungsod brings to the screen the short yet meaningful life of the young Visayan saint whose recent canonization by Pope Benedict XVI had made him the second Filipino saint to follow after San Lorenzo Ruiz.
While Calungsod’s importance in our country’s history is indisputable, his significance as a compelling subject for a feature length film is an entirely different matter. If the film’s narrative is anything to go on, Calungsod’s life is nothing more than a series of drudging sermons that ultimately lead to an untimely death on the beach.
The film itself does its best to remain faithful to the historical events surrounding Calungsod’s missionary work, focusing on his life in the Marianas in an effort to baptize the local Chamorro natives. But the end result feels more like a dispassionate history lesson than a compelling cinematic experience.
A problem of portrayal
Throughout the film, Pedro Calungsod (Rocco Nacino) remains largely inactive. As the personal assistant to Jesuit Father Diego Luis de San Vitores (Christian Vasquez), Pedro spends most of his time doing things of someone else’s accord. While the well-meaning Father Diego is undoubtedly a major influence in Calungsod’s life, it often feels like Father Diego is the star of the film.
This robs Calungsod of any sense of conviction. Most of the time, Pedro is depicted blissfully reminiscing about his childhood year, or preaching the good news to children who seem too young to understand his often hifalutin lectures. In contrast to the larger conflict between the native Chamorro and the Spanish missionaries, Calungsod’s concerns feel petty and inconsequential.
It’s worth noting that the lead role of Pedro Calungsod was originally been given to actor J. M. De Guzman, whose credibility as a performer accompanied by his boyish looks made him a plausible pick for the eighteen year old saint.
But after De Guzman backed out from the role, it was ultimately given to Rocco Nacino, whose role in Alvin Yapan’s Ang Sayaw ng Dalawang Kaliwang Paa provided proof of his prowess as a dramatic actor.
But despite Nacino's best efforts, his mostly masculine features betrays his age. His overly naïve and wide-eyed portrayal of the Visayan saint ends up looking more dumbfounded than devoted. Mixed with a wig that is as distracting as it is ridiculous and we have saint that is more caricature than character.
The case isn’t helped by Calungsod’s characterization. Although life as a missionary is indisputably difficult, the film provides Calungsod with very few challenges of faith. Nowhere in the film is Calungsod’s own deovotion to Christ put to the test. His blind acceptance of the church’s teachings may have been typical of a saint, but unfortunately, the unwillingness of Villacorta to challenge his main character leaves him regrettably unrelatable.
A failure of faith
Regardless of the film’s many shortcomings, it’s regrettable to see how a story so steeped in Christianity has such a superficial notion of faith. Church doctrine is repeated ad nauseam and provides little context for Calungsod’s own love for Christ. In the end, it’s hard to see Calungsod as little more than a subservient fool than a devout follower of faith.
Despite the usual festivities surrounding the Metro Manila Film Festival, Pedro Calungsod: Batang Martir may be the only film that reminds us of the Christ in Christmas. While the film is paved with good intentions, it is ultimately marred by an unwillingness to dig past the usual clichés of church doctrine and colonial history. Natives are portrayed as thoughtless barbarians, Spanish colonialists are depicted as righteous totalitarians, and missionaries are represented as soft-spoken messiahs.
The challenge of cinematic adaptation is to breathe warm life into cold text. Admittedly, that is a challenge that easier written than executed. Unfortunately for Pedro Calungsod, this attempt turned out to be an emotionless sermon best heard in church.
Watch the trailer here:
Zig Marasigan is a freelance screenwriter and director who believes that cinema is the cure for cancer. Follow him on Twitter at @zigmarasigan.
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