Review: Adolfo Alix Jr.’s “Adela”

The wonderfully expressive face of veteran Filipina actress Anita Linda is the heart and main attraction of Adolfo Alix, Jr.’s mesmerizing 2008 film Adela. Alix takes the opposite approach from many recent films from the Philippines that have gained attention on the festival circuit, exemplified by such filmmakers as Brillante Mendoza, who boosted his profile considerably by taking home the best director prize at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival for his film Kinatay. Mendoza’s restless camerawork and depictions of the desperate slums of Manila have been echoed by many of his peers, affording their audiences a visceral, vicarious experience of poverty, hustling, and corruption. Alix eschews all of this in Adela, preferring long takes and panoramic master shots when it is not intimately focusing on its title character. Adela is celebrating her 80th birthday (the entire film takes place on this one day) and hopeful that her children and grandchildren will finally pay her a visit, which we quickly learn is a very rare occurrence, as her children have their own lives far away from her. Adding to her solitude is the fact that she has been a widow for many years now; Adela often passes the time by listening to radio plays as she cooks and does other chores in the home. Many years ago, Adela was a popular actress on these radio shows, giving it up both because of her husband’s wish for her to stay home with the children, and the waning popularity of radio dramas due to the advent of television.

Adela, however much she dominates the narrative, is by no means the only character here, and one of the great strengths of Alix’s film is the broad view he affords us of the environment that Adela exists in. Before we are introduced to Adela, we first follow a very pregnant woman who catches her mate having sex with another woman, whom the pregnant woman is in debt to – whether this other woman is her landlady or some other sort of benefactor is not quite clear. As she fights and hits her philandering partner, she suddenly goes into labor, and is helped through it by Adela, who becomes an impromptu midwife, helping the woman deliver her baby. Adela’s other neighbors are just as colorful – other important characters include: a ne’er-do-well who habitually steals from people’s homes and tries to sell off his ill-gotten goods afterward, and who may or may not have stolen Adela’s wedding ring; the boisterous and very effeminate neighbor who gives Adela a manicure; and in the film’s most amusing scene, a neighbor and fellow grandmother whom Adela walks in on as she is having sex with a much younger man, justifying her behavior as a necessary way to stave off loneliness and fulfill her sexual needs. “Besides, I won’t get pregnant, anyway,” she tells Adela. Most pertinently to our understanding of Adela’s character, this friend asks Adela, “Are you happy?” The silence that follows this query speaks volumes.

Anita Linda does so much more than portray this elderly woman; she seemingly inhabits this woman body and soul. And that face! It is as transparent a vessel for displaying emotion as any I have ever seen. This now is the second film I have seen this remarkable actress in; the other is Brillante Mendoza’s 2009 film Lola, which I saw at the Pusan International Film Festival. In the latter film, she is just as riveting, playing a very different character than Adela. Color me a fan: I would love to see her earlier work. She is in practically every scene of this film, and minute by minute we are drawn deeper into her world. Alix’s style is austere and spare, but without the aridness of similar films that employ this kind of aesthetic. The final scene of the film, in which we feel the full force of Adela’s solitude, is what remains with me: the sound of lapping waves, crickets, and passing airplanes as she has a picnic alone, one of the saddest scenes you will ever see in any film. Adolfo Alix, Jr., with Adela, has created a brilliant character study that also doubles as a sharply trenchant depiction of the casual corruption that manipulates the lives of poor people in the Philippines. The political backdrop against which Adela’s story is set concerns the bribery, with food and money, of the people of her village to join a rally in support of Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. It is a testament to Adela’s sense of dignity and justice that she resolutely refuses to participate in this farce, probably because she and the rest of her neighbors will soon be forced to move out of the shacks that sit beside a landfill to make way for a highway extension. It is this awareness of both the macro and the micro of his characters’ circumstances that makes Adela such an emotionally and politically astute film.