Bona, 44 years later

NORA AUNOR from the restored version of Lino Brocka’s 1980 film Bona. — CARLOTTAFILMS.COM

Bona (1980)Lino Brocka

THERE’s a lovely symmetry to having the restored print of director Lino Brocka’s Bona (1980) screened in the 2024 Cannes Classics section, in the same city where the film had its world premiere (at the parallel Director’s Fortnight) decades ago. Feels like a combination homecoming, resurrection, and revelation all at the same time.

Carlotta Films and Kani Releasing collaborated to have Cite de Memoire laboratory in Paris do a 4k digital restoration of the 35 mm print and sound negatives kept by LTC Patrimoine; the film will be released in French theaters on Sept. 25 — no word yet on a DVD or streaming platform, but fingers crossed.

Meantime, looking at the latest available copy — if memory serves, a Cinema One video from the Cinematheque Francais back in 2006 — I wondered if the film could stand a rewatch, even in a relatively cruder state of repair.

We are familiar with the premise: Bona is a middle-class teen fixated on aspiring actor Gardo (Philip Salvador), and casting Nora Aunor — then the Philippines’ biggest star — as said admirer tickled the imaginations of local film enthusiasts (but not the general public, the film was not a commercial success). Call this Aunor’s covert critique of the fans that made her famous and of her own messianic persona — one revealed to be pathetically self-sacrificing, the other monumentally self-absorbed; they meet and spin off in a dance of mutual destruction.

The film opens in a state of tumult — The Black Nazarene, a dark-skinned wooden Jesus with crucifix on one shoulder, mounted on a motorized carriage and paraded outside of Quiapo Church. Crowds swirl about hauling rope (to clear a path?), tossing rags that the attendants pick up, wipe across the statue’s face and cross, toss back (the figure supposedly possesses healing powers that are somehow passed on in the rags).

The massive images of the Nazarene, shot verité style, serves as Brocka’s large-scale introduction to the theme of unblinking, unthinking idolatry — a swarthy icon simultaneously venerated (paraded before the church) and humbled (subject to Roman torture); Nora is similarly venerated and humbled, as star of the film playing the lowliest of the low.

Except in the church procession, you see the act of worship performed as large-scale spectacle in all its terrible grandeur; Brocka zooms in to capture the act of worship as personal drama, a story unnoticed by everyone except the filmmaker’s restless camera.

The film quickly establishes its premise, spends time adding detail: when we first see Gardo he’s walking past Bona, one of his many girls clinging to one arm; when Gardo is beaten up by four men (the plot development neatly explained away as a complication from one of Gardo’s love affairs) Bona spends the night caring for him, and next day is whipped by her father for not coming home. Bona doesn’t resist the whipping, but neither does she totally submit; she ends up at Gardo’s doorstep asking for shelter in exchange for — well, cooking, cleaning, laundering, anything that he needs done.

Gardo agrees reluctantly — at this point he considers her a loyal supporter, a crutch more than anything. What he doesn’t realize — and what most folks watching seem unaware of — is the delicate balancing act Aunor and Brocka and Salvador maintain between the two: the growing dependence Gardo has on Bona, Bona’s developing passive-aggressive jealousy over Gardo. We can say Gardo has the upper hand, he even slaps her around once in a while, but once he’s vented his anger he often relents and treats her kindly; at one point, when she’s tossed the umpteenth one-night stand out the door, Gardo actually stops bringing them home, at least for a while. Bona has emerging stature in Gardo’s world, whether Gardo likes it or not.

Then there’s Nilo (Nanding Josef), a neighbor of Gardo’s who has fallen hard for Bona. Nilo provides an intriguing contrast to Gardo’s good-looking narcissism — he’s painfully self-conscious, and shy; in many ways he’s like Bona, a largely ignored nonentity who has to look elsewhere for meaning in his life. In Gardo’s scheme of things Nilo counts for almost nothing; in Bona’s he’s beneath contempt — if she is nothing in Gardo’s world then Nilo, who loves her, is less than nothing.

Nilo does have one special ability: he sees Bona. He appreciates her as a person, admires her natural warmth and goodness and is smitten by her shy mouse beauty. Perhaps one reason Bona finds Nilo so annoying is because she’s lurked in the margins of Gardo’s universe for so long she finds the spotlight Nilo trains on her unnerving — she doesn’t want to be noticed, not by anyone except Gardo, and even with Gardo she doesn’t demand to be the center of his life, just a satellite in constant orbit. She wants to stay with him no matter what, close by if not beside; people like Nilo threaten that equilibrium, and she dislikes it.

But even that assessment is incomplete: Nilo has one other special ability, and that is the ability to grow, adjust, develop beyond his original cast. He escapes the trap of unrequited love, presumably because he isn’t especially handsome, or particularly obsessive; he just is a reasonably balanced, reasonably sane young man. As written, Nilo has the potential to be terminally uninteresting; as played by Josef with unalloyed simplicity he’s the one breath of sanity in this lurid melodrama, the unexpected moral center in this otherwise off-center film.

It pained Philip Salvador to realize his Gardo was so repugnant he would not win a single acting award that year; it should have dawned on him (and on everyone else dense enough to confuse character and creator) that his portrait was so deftly sketched, drew so deeply from his inner insecurities and real-life issues as an actor that he may have delivered the performance of his career.

Aunor’s best-known role is that of the countryside prophetess in Ishmael Bernal’s Himala (Miracle), where she doesn’t play a character really but a religious figure, an icon, her dark petite figure embodying the mysteries of a universe that may or may not contain a god (it’s the ambiguity that gives the film its power).

Aunor’s equally known for playing the smallfolk, the oppressed, the diminutive maiden forever threatened by foreign powers or the male patriarchy or whatever has endangered our country at one time or another, in one way or another, who somehow manages to rise up despite her lack of stature and show the resilience of the Filipina. 

But I submit in Bona Aunor not only performs the role superbly, she leans into it, plays it to the absolute hilt, uncovers all kinds of nuances and darker implications. Ever oppressed, she’s capable of oppressing; ever ignored, she will demand attention; ever manipulated or humiliated, she can (passive-aggressively) manipulate and humiliate and inflict as much suffering as is inflicted on her. Her sisters in cinema are legion: Glenn Close’s Alex Forrest, Kathy Bates’ Annie Wilkes, Isabelle Adjani’s Adele H. — but Aunor plays Bona with masterful subtlety and zero caricature and Brocka captures that performance with consummate skill. The film isn’t just a fine film, it incarnates the virtues of Philippine cinema at its best: simplicity of story, sincerity of intention, and a white-hot core of passion that sets the very seas boiling.