‘We may be poor but we manage to eat.’ You know it’s a Filipino film when food is the first port of call upon greeting a guest to your home.
Julio (Bembol Roco), a young fisherman from a small island called Marinduque, arrives in Manila in search of his missing girlfriend, who some time ago had been tempted away from her home by a strange woman promising well paid work and free education in the capital. Julio finds employment as a cheap labourer where he is first exposed to the corruption that the city appears to feed off of, and through which the ruling class appears to maintain a vice-grip on the impoverished people. Julio slips deeper into the abyss of moral degradation until he inevitably, tragically, explodes.
Manila in the Claws of Light is a desperate, angry film, depicted with the raw authenticity of an Italian neo-realist picture. Lino Brocka manages to avoid it becoming an overbearing polemic by, sadly, just showing the lives of poor Filipinos as it almost certainly was at the time (and let’s face it, probably still is in 2017). Only the odd narrative coincidence here-and-there that propels Julio on his journey threatens to bring attention to itself as a piece of fiction. Because this is a tale almost certainly all too familiar to too many people.
And Bembol Roco is a terrific lead for the film. His arrival to Manila from what appears to be the relative paradise of his fishing village isn’t with a naive wide-eyedness that might have otherwise undermined such realness. Roco imbues a stoicism in Julio that makes his inevitable submission to the violence surrounding him all the more devastating. The rest of the cast are just as good – the scenes with Julio’s work friends and his girlfriend, Ligaya (Hilda Koronel), provide much needed human kindness.
I mentioned Italian neo-realism and the ending, without wanting to give too much away, certainly conjured memories of The Bicycle Thieves. Julio came to Manila in search of truth and justice, but upon arriving finds dishonesty and exploitation in every crevice and dark alley of the city. Hope has been eroded – all that remains is fear and anger. (8)