Sister Courage

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TO CATCH UP WITH WOMEN’S Month and in celebration of a landmark movie’s 25th anniversary, the UP Film Institute (UPFI) mounted a screening of Mike de Leon’s “Sister Stella L.” Led by actors Vilma Santos and Laurice Guillen, producer Lily Monteverde and scriptwriter Jose F. Lacaba, cast, crew, critics and cineastes gathered at the Cine Adarna in UP Diliman on March 20. In her opening remarks, Prof. Anne de Guzman, UPFI director, said that the movie, which chronicles the political awakening of a cloistered nun (Santos) among striking factory workers, exemplified the virtue of “courage.” Prof. Ed Piano of UPFI agreed: “The film is as relevant and compelling today as it was 25 years ago. New generations of students should watch it to evoke a sense of history in them — for them to put in the right context the downfall of [President Ferdinand] Marcos and the victory of the so-called Edsa 1 or People Power Revolution.”

Nonoy Lauzon, UPFI cinema programmer, noted: “It is imperative to provide students the opportunity to watch real gems of RP movies.” Interestingly, the screening was organized by students taking up Film 280 (a course on the Philippine Film Industry), in partnership with a fan club, Vilma Santos Solid International, Inc.

According to Piano, the idea came from a priest and Vilmanian, Fr. Juancho de Leon of St. Valentine Parish in New Jersey. Also at the UP event was Sister Rosario Battung of Good Shepherd—one of the real-life activist-nuns, along with Sister Christine Tan, whom Lacaba interviewed before writing the screenplay with De Leon and Jose Almojuela.

“After 25 years, we are still facing the same problems: poverty and lack of education,” Santos told Inquirer Entertainment after the screening. On so many levels, the movie itself was an act of defiance, considering that this “non-formula” film was produced during the Marcos regime. Guillen, who also played an activist-nun in the film, asserted: “The challenge was to come up with a performance that had no signs of artifice and commercialism … to act as if you were a real nun in a documentary.” “I was known for portraying liberated, modern women,” she pointed out—most notably, her grand slam-winning role as mistress in Ishmael Bernal’s “Relasyon” in 1982. “For the first time in my career—and I had been acting since age 9—I was made to undergo a camera test.” Director De Leon wanted to see how she would look like in a habit and with little makeup, Santos explained. “[Also] I was told that I couldn’t walk with hips swaying—nuns don’t walk that way,” she said. Santos agreed: “The censors became more liberal then.” Still, government pressure bore down on them.

On her first day of work with De Leon, Santos arrived an hour late. “Although I heard that Mike could be strict and moody, he didn’t get mad,” Santos recalled. He just gave her long lines of dialogue to memorize—as punishment. “And I was supposed to deliver it in one take,” Santos said. She nailed it, though. “After the shoot, Mike whispered to me: ‘Next time, don’t be late.’” The director’s admonition, Santos clarified, was for “actors not to have to wait for a long time. On the sets of Mike’s movies, the staff would set up the night before. If an actor’s call time is 7 AM, he should be ready to shoot at 7 AM.” Shooting went smoothly, Santos said. The problems began when it was time to screen the movie.

The rallies protesting the assassination of Ninoy Aquino (in 1983) somehow worked in the film’s favor, commented filmmaker Ellen Ongkeko-Marfil, who worked as production staffer in the movie. “Banning the film would’ve incited more protests.”

Producer Monteverde of Regal Films recalled that she learned there was a warrant of arrest with her name on it. “The government wanted me to surrender the film. I hid the master negatives in my grand piano. The reels were so heavy, the piano’s three legs broke.” Music scorer Ding Achacoso recounted that fans got harassed in movie theaters. “Goons shouted at them, calling them subversives.” Achacoso also lost a luggage, filled with the film’s brochures and collaterals, when he left with director De Leon and production coordinator Amy Apiado for Venice, Italy, where it was in the main competition in 1984. “When we arrived in Europe, we learned that my luggage never left Customs in Manila,” Achacoso said. They also had to smuggle the film out of the country, Monteverde recounted. “We used another Regal movie’s title for the reels of film bound for Venice,” Achacoso said. “No, we didn’t use ‘Bomba Star,’” Monteverde added in jest.

In Venice, the film’s two screenings merited a standing ovation, Achacoso related. “We were surprised,” Apiado said. “Mike, Ding and I didn’t know how to react.” “When the foreigners left the [two] venues, they were humming the movie’s song ‘Aling Pag-Ibig Pa,’” Achacoso said. According to the music scorer, after the film was shown at the Cinémathèque Française (as part of a De Leon retrospective) in Paris, France, that same year, the institution’s president, Greek filmmaker Costa Gavras, requested for a copy of the movie for its archives. Achacoso said the foreigners found the ending “powerful,” an actual footage of a massive crowd gathered at the Quirino Grandstand, protesting the Aquino assassination.

Stiff competition -That shot, Achacoso noted, wasn’t included in the version shown in local movie houses. “That was one of the concessions for the film to get a commercial run.” But in its opening week, “Sister Stella L” was pitted against the Sharon Cuneta-starrer “Bukas Luluhod ang mga Tala” at the tills. “Ayun, on opening day, napaluhod kami (we were forced to our knees),” Santos said candidly. At the end of the first day, Santos found herself in Monteverde’s home. Santos reminisced: “We were both crying, asking ourselves: ‘Did we make the right move?’”

Two decades and a half later, Monteverde answered Santos’ question: “I have no regrets. This movie has brought honor to Regal. I consider myself lucky that I got to work with the country’s best filmmakers: Lino Brocka, Ishmael Bernal and Mike de Leon.” “I’m very proud of this movie,” Santos declared. “It has stood the test of time.” In an ironic twist, the subtitled copy of the movie that was shown in UP was borrowed from the library of the Philippine Information Agency — a Marcos-era office, said Roselle M. Teo, Monteverde’s daughter. “Regal just released a digitally restored DVD of ‘Sister Stella L.’” So where do they see “Sister Stella L” 25 years after? If a “Stella” sequel were to be produced, where would she be now?

Scriptwriter-actress Raquel Villavicencio, who played a meek nun in the movie, surmised: “Stella would be a member of the New People’s Army by now.”  Lacaba noted: “Stella would still be a nun, still pursuing the cause of Ka Dencio (the slain labor leader in the film).” As an afterthought, Lacaba added: “But she could be a governor, too.” Like the film’s star Santos or priest-turned-Pampanga Governor Eddie Panlilio? Santos found this amusing: “Sister Stella is now Batangas governor, doing her best to serve the people with sincerity, honesty and competence.” – Bayani San Diego Jr., Philippine Daily Inquirer, 03/30/2009