Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros) 2005

The dividing line between adolescence and adulthood is quite precarious. As children, we have the ability to imbue everyday objects and occurrences with a magical aura just through the use of our imagination. And, with our innocent little minds being the only tool we have to shield us from the harsh reality of our environment we are wholly dependent on those around us to nurture and guide us in the proper direction to adulthood.

Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros) is a film about the trauma of death in all its facets. Be it parental death, the dissolution of a budding friendship, or the passing of childhood innocence Auraeus Solito’s film tackles these heavy themes through a simple, somewhat cliché, coming of age story. Maxi, the protagonist of the story, is an effeminate gay boy and yet it’s a credit to Nathan Lopez, the young actor who plays Maxi, that what we get is not another homosexual caricature but a multi-dimensional character. Maxi struts through the back alley slums of Manila proudly and you get the feeling that he isn’t just a character in a film but a living breathing vital part of his community.

Also, it’s a credit to Auraeus Solito’s direction and Nap Jamir’s camerawork that given the setting of the film instead of giving us yet another bleak and low-key lit crime story Jamir and Solito opt for a more natural look and use only available lighting to shoot their love story. There are shots of scum-infested ponds, vagrants, jeepneys, and street side food stalls but these things don’t have a purely negative connotation to them. Kids running and playing in the streets, a video store with a makeshift theatre playing DVDs for its customers, and the never ending plates of food being shared and eaten fleshes out this tiny corner of the world as a place not defined by the inherent poverty that afflicts it. In effect, Solito humanizes the Manila slums that he’s shooting and in turn humanizes its occupants.

Maxi’s family may not fit “normal” society’s agreed upon definition of what a nuclear family is, but it is a loving supportive unit of people. Paco, Maxi’s father, and his two brothers accept Maxi for who he is. In fact they don’t even make Maxi’s sexual orientation an issue. The only crinkle though in Maxi’s picture perfect home life is that his father and brothers are career criminals.

Maxi cooks, cleans, sews, and does the everyday household chores for his family with nary a complaint. With their mother dead since Maxi was a little boy he has taken on the role of mother figure by proxy. It’s interesting to note that Maxi’s mother looms heavily throughout the entire film. Be it the prominent shrine to her in their apartment, her dresses neatly folded in the closet, or the empty space when the family goes to sit down for dinner or lounge around while watching a movie. The mother’s presence can even be felt during Maxi’s attempts at cross-dressing; whether it's pretending to be in a beauty pageant with his friends or at home as he tries on his mother’s clothes and various accessories it is almost as if Maxi were constantly rehearsing for the role of matriarch.

The child-as-parent role reversal though is an interesting facet of the story that the screenwriter Michiko Yamamoto tackles with the introduction of Victor, played by J.R. Valentin, into the narrative. Victor, a police officer who saves Maxi from being assaulted by two street thugs, plays dual roles in the film. He is both a father figure and love interest for Maxi, but their relationship is much more complicated then that. Although Maxi is physically attracted to Victor, even stealing an innocent kiss on the cheek from him, his feelings for Victor are tangled up in his desire for a more positive role model in his life and also his budding sexuality, which yearns to experience love for the first time. Maxi admires Victor as the ideal romantic partner for himself, regardless of their age gap, but he also treats him as a surrogate family member; preparing him meals and taking care of Victor after he gets severely beaten up. Maxi’s obsession with films, dressing up, and playacting go hand in hand with his feelings for Victor because Victor represents the needed catalyst in Maxi’s life to correct the parent-child schism caused by having to be mother, son, and brother to his family.

Although he comes from a loving home Maxi is at the cusp of adulthood and is struggling for an identity of his own. Of course because he’s taken on the identity of caregiver for so long the only way Maxi can express his true feelings for Victor is by mothering him. Victor’s spell over Maxi is only broken after the death of Maxi’s father, Paco, because first of all it showed Victor to not be the hero that Maxi had imagined. And also, Paco’s death led to Maxi finally being able to relinquish the title of caregiver and hand over the job to his older more mature brothers. In effect, by film’s end Maxi can just be himself, wiser than he was at the start of the film, but still an adolescent with a few more years before he crosses the threshold into adulthood.

Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros) is a neorealist melodrama that upturns the audience’s expectations of a coming of age story. The humanity that the actors and the director, Auraeus Solito, invest into the film makes it more like a documentary at times. And even after the credits roll it’s rather difficult to not try and imagine what Maxi and his family are up to. It’s a shame that today most films about adolescents pander only to lowbrow tastes.

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