by Noel Vera
Jerrold Tarog and Ruel Dahis Antipuesto's Confessional (2007) is a cute little number that opens exactly as its title announces, as a casually winning first-person narrative that is funny and insightful and not a little cynical, tossing in along the way every trick known to an independent filmmaker working on a nonexistent (one million pesos or, roughly, twenty-three thousand dollars) budget--to whit: handheld camera, clever cutting, catchy pop tunes, photo stills, even brief moments of crude, anime-like animation.
And it isn't exactly as if this sort of thing were totally, radically new; it's just the filmmakers bring it off with such charm and effortless, becoming modesty that only a churl would complain about it being less than completely fresh; one certainly can't complain about lack of energy, or inventiveness, or willingness to go wherever the story takes them.
The meandering plot goes roughly like this: editor and at times documentary filmmaker Ryan Pastor (David Barril, a.k.a. director Jerrold Tarog) decides to vacation with his girlfriend Monet (Owee Salva) at the Visayan city of Cebu's Sinulog Festival, hoping along the way to make a documentary that will win the fifty thousand peso (roughly a thousand US dollars) top prize at the local filmmaking competition. At first the film's a parody of a filmmaker's life--hand-to-mouth existence, hard work for doubtful pay, a girlfriend willing to live with him for two years, but perversely too demure to allow him sex during their boat ride to Cebu (Oho, I said to myself, and sure enough later in the film I was proven right).
Arriving at Cebu Pastor's proposed documentary becomes an uneasy, sneakily exploitative two-step as Pastor is adopted, literally off the streets, by a mysterious ex-mayor from the southern island of Mindanao named Lito (Publio Briones III). Lito is unusually candid about certain details of his life, unusually reticent about others; he's willing to mention the name of the starlet he'd shared with a few friends, or the name of the drug lord he'd killed (the drug lord hadn't accorded him enough respect), but as to the exact town he used to preside over, details are for some reason not forthcoming. He about gives away his intentions when he mulls over Pastor's surname (I'd have tried jumping out of the ex-mayor's four wheel drive by now if I were Pastor, on the basis of the looks he's giving me, and the way his mouth savors the syllables of my name).
It's inspired in part by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez's The Blair Witch Project (1999) of course, but Tarog and Antipuesto (like George Romero with his recent (and much underrated) Diary of the Dead (2007)) are smart enough not to shackle themselves exclusively to handheld point-of-view cameras (a trendy gimmick long past its sell-by date, I think); its religious connotations of guilt and contrition are partly from, I suspect, Francis Coppola's The Godfather, Part 3 (not a good model to shape one's feature after, and I do think the character of Lito is the least convincing--if most ambitious--in the picture). It does have older sources (the picture wouldn't be half as interesting if the filmmakers didn't draw from deeper wells): Brian de Palma's Blow Out (1981), of course, which in turn draws its premise (the recording of a murder) from Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up (1966); de Palma's early features (the 1968 Greetings, the 1970 Hi, Mom!) which blurred the line between documentary and fiction; and arguably the greatest and most intricate of all mockumentaries, Orson Welles' Verites et mensong (F is for Fake, 1974) which in effect was about forgeries of all kinds, including the filmmaker's.
"Lies + lies = truth" Pastor tells us, and means to have us accept his philosophy without question; by way of illustration he shows us how video footage of a wedding can be improved by the judicious addition of a crucial shot (seeing, of course, being believing). That's the world of advertising Pastor works in; when he arrives in Cebu the truth is not so simple--a nun insists on the religious nature of the Sinulog, an impromptu philosopher mulls over its hedonistic qualities, and a female impersonator points it out as an occasion for gay pride. "I should have clearer answers," Pastor insists to himself; "or maybe ask clearer questions."
Enter Lito. As representative of the dark underbelly of Philippine politics, Lito's got the air of a spoiled, entitled rich brat down right, but his hidden sociopath is somewhat unfrightening; the rotund Briones plays him as a sly charmer, though, mopping his moist forehead as if he were channeling Orson Welles' Hank Quinlan from Touch of Evil (1958), condescending to Pastor as easily and utterly as Welles did his co-star Charlton Heston, who played an absolutely clueless (yet ultimately triumphant) Mexican police officer. Lito claims never to lie (apparently he doesn't consider not answering a straight question or being evasive as dishonest); he has stories to tell, and Pastor becomes increasingly uncomfortable with their telling: either Lito's lying and one kind of monster or he's not lying, in which case he's another.
At about this point Tarog and Antipuesto overreach, trying to convey a sense of urgency around issues too big for poor Pastor to wrap his head around. If Lito's motives for talking to Pastor were more comprehensible, if he could suggest more effectively (or evocatively) the monster of guilt we have to assume is eating away inside of him (Briones plays charm well, but that kind of angst needs a, well, Welles to convey them properly), then maybe his character would snap into focus.
As it is, Lito's an agreeable, fascinating blur, something we can peer at, but never be able to completely ascertain. It's Pastor's reactions to Lito's shenanigans, his appalled yet undeniable ambivalence that manages to keep our interest fixed--we wonder how far this haplessly lean Sancho Panza can follow behind his bloated Don Quixote without falling off his burro. Or, to be more precise, before the Don turns around and skewers him with a non-imaginary lance.
It's all about lies, and their approximate position to the truth (think about it: an honest man simply tells the truth, exposes a lie; a liar is constantly aware of the exact point where he has embellished the truth, however slightly), and while Confessional doesn't do the kind of brilliant, utterly persuasive mythmaking that F is for Fake manages to do (and this within Welles' aforementioned allotted time), it does lie with vigor and not a little charm.
It's all about lies, and in the end, when the lies--sorry, chickens--come home to roost, it's all about the harm that lies can inflict no matter how good the intention (to protect, insult, comfort, take advantage, get on with one's life), and how this is not always a bad thing--an evil necessity, almost (think of a couple that has found out unpleasant truths about each other; what must they do, if they intend to stay together?). Yet another important moment occurs almost under Pastor's--and our--noses when the dance instructor points out that the Sinulog steps are simplicity itself; the words use may be exactly what's needed to boil the Filipino spirit down to a single phrase: "Two steps forward, one step back." It's possibly one explanation why the Filipino's progress has been so slow in this fast-moving era, and why we're so ambivalent about that particular bit of tautology.