Remembering Ishmael Bernal

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Ishmael Bernal, 58, leading Filipino movie director who made about 60 films on social injustice. He studied diplomacy at the University of the Philippines and was in the diplomatic service until he switched to filmmaking in the early 1970s. Over the last quarter-century, he used satire to describe social and political problems, often angering the late President Ferdinand Marcos and his wife, Imelda. The couple often had large portions of Bernal’s films cut by censors, including 1982’s “Manila by Night,” a film illustrating the poverty that drives people to act irresponsibly. Bernal overcame the censorship by having his films shown in their entirety at film festivals around the world. On Sunday in Manila of a heart attack. – L. A. Times, June 08, 1996 (READ MORE)

Worthy Films “…Of the 39 films he has made, at least 20 are worthy of his name, out of which seven are quite good, nine others are very good or outstanding – Pagdating sa Dulo (1971), Ligaw na Bulaklak (1975), Nunal sa Tubig (1976), Dalawang Pugad Isang Ibon (1977), Ikaw ay Akin (1978), Aliw (1979), City After Dark (1980, and Relasyon and Himala (1982). With all these films to his credit, Bernal has already assured himself of a prominent position in the history of Philippine cinema even if he decides to stop working now. as many of these films prove, he has done what was earlier cosidered to be impossible – reconcile the box-office with aesthetic daring and intellectual dynamism, virtues hardly found together before in Philippines movies…Every aspect of a Bernal film may not always be successfully realized, but his weakness is outshine by his strengths. In every film, he seems to be ready to try something new, whether it be a theme, conflict, character or scene. He is also out of the few major local directors to have covered the broadest range of film genres and theme with varying levels of success, from the historical drama, like the Bonifacio episode in the unreleased multi-million peso omnibus Lahing Pilipino (1976), to the disco musical Good Morning Sunshine (1980) and the personal, experimental films Nunal sa Tubig and Himala…” – Mario A. Hernando (READ MORE)

Hataw Na! – “…Direk Joey has fond memories of the legendary Bernal whom he worked with as screenwriter for ‘Pahiram ng Isang Umaga” in 1989…Since I was a screenwriter during the Second Golden Age of Philippine cinema, I met Bernal, along with Lino Brocka. The only script of mine that Bernal directed, “Pahiram ng Isang Umaga,” won for me my first Urian (critics’ award) for Best Screenplay. I will never forget how Bernal sent a message to my Pocketbell unit, congratulating me for “Hataw Na!” in 1995. (He was a big fan of Gary Valenciano kasi.) Or how he hugged me after seeing “Iisa Pa Lamang,” the second film I wrote and directed in 1992. A director like Bernal is a rarity. He saw his peers not as competition, but as comrades. His life to the very end was to inspire young filmmakers to be original and to fight for their identities. Apart from “Working Girls,” what are your favorite Bernal films? “Relasyon,” “Broken Marriage,” “Manila by Night” are three films that have sunk into my very being. [They represent] the image of the ultimate Filipino filmmaker….” – Bayani San Diego Jr., Philippine Daily Inquirer, Apr 18 2010 (READ MORE)

Last Film – “…Bernal’s film career was characterized by a highly successful combination of form and content. He was as passionate about the techniques of scriptwriting and camera movement as he was about the use of his art to impart scathing social commentary. As is usual in the film industry, Bernal started out with commercially-oriented films before he could venture into cause-oriented cinema. In fact, even when he was already identified with socially-committed film, he did a commercially-oriented film every now and then. But he took care not to make films that ran counter to his basic principles. Thus, even as he occasionally made commercially-oriented films, he made sure they were not films that reinforced the societal values he abhorred. Socially committed films—the likes of his classics “Nunal sa Tubig,” “Manila After Dark,” “Himala,” and “Wating” — made the bulk of his work. The ruling classes’ employment of deceit to make the people accept social injustice, the hypocritical values that prevail in society, unequal gender relations—these were the themes he frequently dealt with. He is best known for the 1980 film “Manila by Night,” a film that depicts the decadence of the night life in Manila. In the 1990s, he got disillusioned with the trend of degeneration in the film industry which started in the late 1980s—a reversal of what he and his contemporaries Lino Brocka, Behn Cervantes, and Mike de Leon had achieved in the 1970s. After making his last film, “Wating,” an action movie which is at the same time an attack on the religious establishment, he decided to quit filmmaking. He turned to theater and directed plays for the militant mass movement while occasionally making television commercials…” – Alexander Martin Remollino, Bulatlat.com (READ MORE)

Bernal and Rodriguez – “…After he got back from India, Manila’s art scene reverted to its “normal” state of inspired insanity, and he went about trying to get his movie produced. No, I told the film students—and they were “shocked” to hear it—it wasn’t “Pagdating sa Dulo,” as they had been taught in their film history subjects, but a Virgo Productions movie titled (take a deep breath) “Ah, Ewan, Basta sa Maynila Pa Rin Ako!” Virgo, by the way, was the production company of “drama king” Eddie Rodriguez. Ishmael’s brilliance, wit, loquaciousness and volatility had impressed Eddie, and he agreed to produce the first Bernal opus, which was meant to be a “loving” satire on the city of Manila. During the production’s shooting phase, Ishmael invited us to watch some rushes with him, and we were delighted at how funny and spot-on his satirical scenes were. We remember one series of sequences in particular in which Ishmael spoofed the many vendors who came up to cars and other vehicles caught in traffic, selling all sorts of wares, from apples to zebras (well, you get the picture). In one especially droll scene, a vendor lugged an entire aparador past the camera! In another, the traffic jam took so long to unravel that, by the time it flowed again, the little seedling a vendor had sold a customer had grown into—a tree! Really outrageously funny stuff like that…But it turned out that, while we were laughing our heads off, the producer wasn’t having such a fun time. The way we see it now, he may have been worried that Ishmael’s acerbic kind of wit would not be all that easy for ordinary local moviegoers (used to more slapstick stuff, perhaps) to relate to. So, it appears that he and his young writer–director had a talk, during which he asked for changes—and the result was, Ishmael bowed out of the project! That’s right, with the movie not completely finished, it lost its director, and Eddie had to finish shooting the movie himself. We watched “Ah, Ewan…” when it opened in theaters, and quite expectedly, it was pretty much a mish-mash that didn’t amount to much. What was interesting and instructive to us was the fact that we could readily tell which scenes had been shot by Bernal, and which had been appended by Rodriguez. Eventually Ishmael got over his unfortunate first experience in filmmaking and went on to do “Pagdating sa Dulo,” which was a singular success, along with the many other fine films that followed…” – Nestor U. Torre, Philippine Daily Inquirer, September 18, 2011 (READ MORE)

Bernal’s Family – “…Ishmael Bernal grew up in the Santa Mesa district where a mestizo streak persists to date, with his mother Elena Bernal, in an extensible family setup under the proximate wings of a maternal grandfather Lope K. Santos, who had survived a jazz age image of a man in white sharkskin, beloved of ideologues and obreros, Rizalistas and fragile Spanish-speaking Tagalas. They lived not far from where the conquistadores had built in late-18th century a pied-a-terre, its back to a river which bisects the city before debouching into Manila Bay. It would pass on to American civil governors at the turn of the 20th century and to Filipino presidents since the end of the Pacific War, as the Yanks reference the backdrop to the Filipinos’ cameo role in a theater of World War II. But a more important landmark than Malacanang Palace to Bernal was Embassy theater, a minute’s dash from his childhood niche, which provided him with an early arsenal of images to use later in what we called Project Wham+a, for Winning Hearts and Minds plus arse, after an American hybrid of Madison Avenue stratagems vis-a-vis the exigencies of the war in VietNam where victory was elusive in the 60’s. We affixed arse as a realistic ancillary target and motivation of a film director’s career…For some years after we first met Ishmael never mentioned his father. He did make brief references to an uncle in Mariano Toledo to whom his mother was married: a tall man who lumbered unsmiling across our field of vision for many years, at their house in Caloocan, whose windows he would shut when Nena would play an opera; then upstairs of When It Is a Grey November in Your Soul Coffee Shop in Malate, where I often crashed in the late Sixties, before Ishmael left for India and the Poona Film Institute.

I would be a conspirator in the task of making it known to Nena that her only child had long known who his biological father was; that they had met ( I tried to annoy him by asking if it was like James Dean in a scene from East of Eden but I never succeeded) before he went aboard a cargo ship that would take him to France (among the passengers was an Indian who would borrow his toothbrush) to get a licentiate in French at Aix-en-Provence; and that cinema was instrumental in introducing him to his father’s family as well as in getting him to call Tio Mar “Father” toward the end of their lives which had come in fairly quick succession, for Nena died within a year of Ishmael (I could not bear to see her, she was never quite the same, she told someone who had asked her why she never visited Ishmael’s old room that she would not be responsible if she never came down again), and Tio Mar within a year of the woman he had taken care of with unquestioning devotion. Bernal used to say, in getting me to agree to write his biography, that there was nothing I forgot and pretended to overlook the fact that I remembered only odds and ends and irrelevant details. He tempted me with the admonition to by all means “Tell all”. He even agreed to record a number of conversations on subjects usually considered germane to a biography. The tapes were mercifully lost in a fire that destroyed everything I had ever owned except what I was wearing and, by happenstance, a suitcase bursting with Bernal’s photos, notes, and occasional journals, enough surely to start a bio….” – Jorge Arago (READ MORE)

Cinema Bernal “…As artist lock horns with Malacanang and the Church over freedom of expression, a novelist, an experssionist painter, a dramatist and a filmmaker have been named the country’s newest Natiional Artists…Ironically, one of the newest National Artist, Bernal had had a storied career battling state censors over the social content and sexy scenes of his movies which had won acclaime here and abroad. Bernal (1938-1995) studied literature at the University of the Philippines and obtained a licentiate in French literature and philosophy at the Universtiy of Aix-en-Provence in France. He became a Colombo Plan scholar and studeied film directing at the Film Institute of India in Poona, under the tutelage of the Indian master Satyajit Ray. Returning to the PHilippines, Bernal established himself early on as a leading voice of the cinema with his first movie, “Pagdating sa Dulo” (1971), a gritty movie about the “bomba” (soft-porn) film industry before martial law. Starring the irreverent Rita Gomez in what was perhaps the high point of her career, the movie had the hall marks of what was to become the cinema of Bernal: campy wit, accerbic dialogue, sexy tenor, trenchat characterization, and inventive camera work. In the following years, Bernal, together with Lino Brocka (who was also awarded the National Artist posthumously) made some of the most memorable films of so-called second golden age of Philippine cienma. He directed the innovative “Nunal Sa Tubig,” which despite the criticism of conservative groups, went on to win the best picture in the Catholic Mass Media Awards in 1977and was named one of the top international movies of the 1970s by the Internatinal Catholic Committee of the Cinema. Bernal’s other notable films were “City After Dark” (1980), “Himala” (1982), “Relasyon” (1982), and “Broken Marriage” (1983), Last Saturday, the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino named, “Wating,” Bernal’s last movie as one of the best movies of the 1990s…” – Lito B. Zulueta, Philippine Daily Inquirer, March 27, 2001 (READ MORE)

Ishmael Bernal and Vilma Santos

Bernal gave Vilma Santos her first grandslam best actress awards and two consecutive Gawad Urian best actress (1982 and 1983). Their first film together was Inspiration (1972) and last was Pahiram Ng Isang Umaga (1989).

Inspiration (1972) – “…In a musical era of 1970s, “Inspiration” was quite an experimental film, with no musical numbers, better screenplay, well-written characters. Nestor and Bernal works well in establishing the character of Jay and Vilma. Their dialouges are not “corny” and very realistic. There is no over the top dramatic scenes inserted between musical numbers here…” – RV (READ MORE)

Now and Forever (1973) – “…1973 turned out to be a banner year for Vilma Santos as she emerged on top with box office hits one film after another. Nine films altogether that featured her in different genres (comedy – “Tsismosang Tindera;” fantasy – “Maria Cinderella,” “Dyesebel at ang Mahiwagang Kabibe” and ”Ophelia at Paris;” action/fantasy – “Wonder Vi,” “Lipad, Darna, Lipad,” and “Darna and the Giants;” horror – “Anak ng Aswang” and teenybopper – “Carinosa” and “Now and Forever”). While Vilma was productive Bernal, like the past two years did only two films, one was the comedy fantasy starring television host and comedian Ariel Ureta in a spin off of Superman, “Zoom, Zoom, Superman!” and his film wih Vi, “Now and Forever” with Edgar Mortiz…” – RV (READ MORE)

Dalawang Pugad Isang Ibon (1977) – “…Bernal, testing the tensions of triangular love (for geometry books, one of his characters wittily says) for some time now, plunges deeper into character analysis and metaphorizing… In Lumayo, Lumapit ang Umaga, the triangle was unevenly explored: the first love was sketchily drawn. Dalawang Pugad, Isang become a choice for a more stable relationship. Walang Katapusang Tag-araw was a strange reverse of characters for two women and an unusual development of love into hatred and hatred into love, where therefore the triangle was essentially illusions. Ikaw ay Akin finally sets an interlocked triangle on its bases and looks at it (from all 3 angles) squarely in the face…” – Petronila Cleto, Pelikula Atbp (READ MORE)

Ikaw ay Akin (1978) – “…The film is greatly enhanced by Jose Carreon’s vibrant script, Mel Chionglo’s superb production design, the Vanishing Tribe’s fine musical score, and Augusto Salvador’s brisk editing (few scenes last longer than a couple of minutes). But the lion’s share of credit goes to Bernal. I particularly like his splendid use of meaningful pauses and oppressive silences, as in Sandra and Tere’s accidental first meeting at Rex’s house, Sandra’s soundless dinner with her father that leads to her breakdown, and the long, quiet ending scene where Sandra and Tere never say a word and yet succeed in finally communicating with each other. Our viewers are discomfited by this exhausting process, what with the underdeveloped tastes of our mass audience perpetuated by irresponsible irectors. But one fervently hopes for Bernal, who apparently believes he owes the audience his best even if they are more likely to love his third best more, that they would get the film’s message and, perhaps, even accept and like it…” – Mario E. Bautista, Philippine Daily Express, 1978 (READ MORE)

Good Morning Sunshine (1980) – “…Junior – Now 66 years old (can you believe that?), he was Vilma Santos’ leading man in Good Morning Sunshine in 1980. Born Antonio Morales Barretto, he was born in Manila, but moved to Spain with his family when he was 15. He was already a popular singer in Spain when he tried Pinoy showbiz. After doing a series of local movies (another one of his films was Disco Madhouse with Lorna Tolentino and Rio Locsin) and record albums (Yakap is still memorable to me), he went back to Spain (his wife and kids were all living there) where he continued singing. Eventually, he managed the showbiz career of his wife, Rocio Durcal, but she died of cancer in 2006…” – Butch Francisco (READ MORE)

Relasyon (1982) – “…The writers have fed significance into the conversations by filling them with popular ideas on marriage and relationships, engaging the viewers to respond with their own beliefs. There is irony though in the confessions of Emil and Marilou – in happier times – that each had been a better person upon being loved by the other. But their life together contradicted that statement. Her selfishness is revealed. “Ikaw lang ang iniintindi mo” he says and it uncovered his insensitivity. “Ako rin, may ego”, She replies. Vilma Santos confidently showed she felt the character she was portraying. Her depiction of feelings and emotions easily involve the viewers to share in her conflicts and joys. In this film, she has peeled-off apprehensions in her acting. Christopher de Leon has also been supportive in emphasizing the characterization of Marilou. He suitably complements Vilma’s acting. The director, Ishmael Bernal, displays his flair for taking scenes of Vilma putting on make-up. Unwittingly, he has suggested that whatever make-up is put on over adultery, it is still adultery…” – Lawrence delos Trinos, Star Monthly Magazine, July 1982 (READ MORE)

Broken Marriage (1983) – “…Vilma Santos is not about to be a letdown, not this time when the most important female roles are coming her way. A new intelligence she infuses in the character Ellen. Like De Leon, she turns Ellen into a woman-child, but the stress is less on her part as she has done similar roles before. Her beautiful face is flush receptive: the quiet moments of just observing the people around her are moments of perfect acting. Her body moves with an agility that is both funny and dramatic. Her two monologues – the first with her friends in the cafe when she informs them that she is bored, and the second with Rene when she tells him that they are not children anymore – are her best scenes: the camera lingers upon her countenance and she enunciates in return with ironic ease. She should watch out for next year’s awards race – there is simply no stopping her at the moment…” – Joselito Zulueta, Sine Manila – 1983 (READ MORE)

Pahiram ng Isang Umaga “…Director Ishmael Bernal has seen in the material an opportunity to put substance to what has often been denigrated as the unthinking man’s entertainment, and to a considerable degree, his attempt has been a success. Pahiram is both effective as a tearjerker and meaningful as a depiction of people in crisis. Using a traditional element of the genre, the theme of death, Bernal and writer Jose Javier Reyes probe into the life of a woman who has been told that the end is near. Juliet (Vilma Santos, one of the two reigning Philippine female superstars for the past two decades now) is told that she has eight or maybe seven months to live. As a progressive advertising creative director who has been promoted (rather late) as vice president of her company, she has the means to attend to the less mundane demands of life, examine what may have been an unexamined life, and make the most of the limited time left…” – Mario A. Hernando, Malaya – 5 March 1989 (READ MORE)

Physical Endurance – “…Ishmael Bernal, who claims to have directed Vilma’s best pictures, believes she has endured because she has physical, emotion and mental endurance. ‘She could work for 24 hours straight without getting tired, without flagging in her acting. There were times when we had to shoot for three or four successive days, getting very little sleep, but there Vilma would be: fresh, enthusiastic, rarin’ to go. Physical endurance is very important to a star. Another thing I noticed was her strong sense of competition. At that time, though of course, she didn’t say so, it was Nora she wanted to beat. Vilma was out to be the bigger star, the better actress. And so she geared her career for a zoom to the top.” Bernal first directed her in Inspiration (1971), produced by Tagalog Ilang-Ilang from a script by Nestor Torre. ‘This was at the height of the Nora-Vilma rivalry and the competing love teams were Nora-Tirso[Cruz] and Vilma-Edgar[Mortiz]. But in Inspiration, Atty. Laxa decided to pair Vilma with a rising new star: Jay Ilagan. That early, I noted that Vilma had the potential to become a great dramatic star. At that time she was not yet doing actress roles, only juvenile fan movies. Her assets were the expressiveness of her eyes, very important for the camera; the creaminess of her complexion, very important on the screen; and the ability to make her audience sympathize if not identify with her. Another thing I noticed was that she’s perfectly relaxed in front of the camera: no sense of compulsion. She just stands there and with a flick of the eye, a movement of the hand, she communicates whatever emotion has to be communicated to the audience. Unlike theater actors who feel they have to use the entire body to communicate, she achieves her effects with the simplest gestures. She already had perfect timing…” – Quijano De Manila (Nick Joaquin), Philippine Graphic Magazine 05 November 1990 (READ MORE)

The Mistress as The Heroine – “…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…” – Pablo A. Tariman, VERA Files (READ MORE)

Ishmael Bernal, a filmmaker of the first order and one of the very few who can be truly called a maestro. Critics have hailed him as “the genius of Philippine cinema.” He is recognized as a director of films that serve as social commentaries and bold reflections on the existing realities of the struggle of the Filipino. His art extends beyond the confines of aesthetics. By polishing its visuals, or innovating in the medium, he manages to send his message across: to fight the censors, free the artists, give justice to the oppressed, and enlighten as well as entertain the audience. Among his notable films are “Pahiram ng Isang Umaga” (1989), “Broken Marriage” (1983), “Himala” (1981), “City After Dark” (1980), and “Nunal sa Tubig” (1976). He was recognized as the Director of the Decade of the 1970s by the Catholic Mass Media Awards; four-time Best Director by the Urian Awards (1989, 1985, 1983, and 1977); and given the ASEAN Cultural Award in Communication Arts in 1993 (NCCA.gov.ph). Bernal was born in Manila on September 30, 1938, the son of Elena Bernal and Pacifico Ledesma. He studied at Burgos Elementary School and Mapa High School before entering the University of the Philippines, and graduated in 1962 with a degree of Bachelor of Arts degree in English. For a time he worked with Lamberto Avellana’s documentary outfit. He went on to earn his Licentiate in French Literature and Philosophy at the University of Aix-en-Prevence in France, and then in 1970 his Diplomate in Film Directing at the Film Insititue of India in Poona, under the Colombo plan scholarhip. Bernal was a board member of the Concerned Artists of the Philippines and the Directors Guild of the Philippines, Inc., an organization that studies the role of film as an instrument of entertainment, education and development. He actively crusaded for the rights and welfare of artists for as long as he lived. He died in Quezon City on June 2, 1996. – Wikipilipinas (READ MORE)

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