The film "Lola", by Brillante Mendoza, (2010)
«Lola» in Tagalog means grandmother. «Lola» is a film that is as moving and frightening as it is necessary and takes us to the Philippines. This is a masterful film by Brillante Mendoza, one of the great Filipino creators. The performances of veterans Anita Linda and Rustica Carpio are simply marvellous. It is filmed in Tagalog, a language spoken by more than 100 million people.
Two older women (Lola Sepa and Lola Puring) must deal with the aftermath of a crime involving their grandchildren: the victim and the suspect. Poor and weak, they both set off searching for money in the middle of a storm.
Lola Sepa, accompanied by her youngest grandson, lights a candle at the scene of the murder of her other grandson by a mobile phone thief.
Then, Lola Sepa begins her search for funds for the funeral and trial. Lola Puring, meanwhile, is engaged in a laborious collection of money to secure the temporary release of her grandson, the mugger.
Both embody the same determination, the same unconditional love. It is poverty, older than the world, trying to overcome the weariness of carrying it on its shoulders. Mendoza knows how to film that weight, but he also knows how to film the peace of liberation and recognition, illustrated in a conversation about ailments and rheumatism that only two grandmothers who have survived a catastrophe can have. There is nothing more moving than to make two older woman and a child the protagonists, a refuge and valid symbol of the humanity that adults have lost in their existential drift.
Resistance and bravery of the most humble people
To emphasise the character of resistance and bravery of the most humble people, the Filipino director decides to set Lola in a time of torrential rains as an atmospheric element that provides a particular emotional climax to the story and its main characters. It also serves as a metaphor for the many inclemencies they suffer in their daily lives, tangibly enunciated through the tyranny of money («justice is a mutually agreed monetary transaction»).
The exploits in which both Lolas must engage to get money (one to bury the grandson, the other to try to get him out of jail) are the excuse to show an unjust reality. The democratic government and institutions – power of the people, by the people, and for the people – do not appear because they do not reach there.They are only glimpsed in the complex bureaucracy that makes any contact with the state administration almost impossible.
In «Lola,» reality and fiction intersect, making it difficult to dissociate, at times embracing the documentary tone. In the film, we see a daily reality of misery, extreme poverty, and very good people and not so good people who take advantage of the former, where social justice does not exist and where the poor continue to live the law of the funnel (The strongest get the broadside while the weakest get the narrow side, in an apparent reference to the shape of the funnel.
A scene demonstrates the spirit of «cinema verité» and the background. As one of the two grandmothers of the title travels by train, we see a (presumably US) camera operator following his colleague’s orders, and the two strike up a conversation: «Look at that boy, he’s naked, film him! «Shall I do it in slow motion? «Yes, people love that.»
Mendoza says much more than some films do in their entire length with these short sentences. Mendoza criticises a particular way of making films. A dart that seems to be directed towards those experiments in portraying a Slumdog Millionaire type of designer misery, and from which Lola is completely distanced with her hyperrealist vision of Manila and its surroundings, a place ravaged by poverty, dirt, corruption, and exasperating bureaucracy, nevertheless, populated by born survivors ready for redemption.
Mendoza’s denunciation goes beyond the usual and is heir to the great committed filmmakers. The plot of «Lola» tells the stories of two grandmothers and their families and environments. We get to know the social fabric and their religious and cultural beliefs. Everything is genuine. The scene in which the grandmother has to choose a coffin, aware that she does not have enough money to pay for it, is masterful. It reminds us of the protagonists of Ken Loach’s «Raining Stones», a family without resources, placed outside society by Margaret Thatcher’s radical economic liberalisation in England in the 1980s, who have to find the money to pay for their daughter’s communion dress.
The Philippines (or anywhere else in the developing world) today
The Philippines is now one of the fastest-growing economies globally, with a GDP increasing at an average of almost 5 percent per year over the last decade. Still, these figures coexist with a high poverty rate, a paradoxical situation called «jobless growth.»
Orthodox economists still defend an unspoken but dominant view on wealth, according to which as long as poverty is reduced, there should be no objection to the rampant gains of the rich. The assumption is that high growth rates increase employment, incomes, and living standards. However, this is not the case at all: the gap between the poorest and the richest continues to widen, with the poor constituting the majority and coexisting with an elite of very few.
The key is not the growth rate but the type of economic growth the country is experiencing. But we still use GDP (or GDP per capita) following the «chicken law»: You and I have a chicken, I eat all the chicken, but the statistics will tell us that we have eaten half a chicken on average. If we manage to produce more chickens, the winners will eat more chicken, and there will be enough bones for the losers.
Unsung heroines in a world without men
The absence of the father, the grandfather, and sometimes even the mother is evident throughout the film. Only male children appear, and the father figure is absent, and neither appears nor is mentioned in the movie. The «Lolas» carry the burden of responsibility, the two grandmothers, authentic heroines in a world without men.
Let’s finish with this magnificent film by saying that, in a way, then, Lola is a film about heroines; unsung heroes who lack heroic attributes, who are fearful. Surrounded by people who steal, lie, or murder, who ally themselves with their enemy if it suits their interests, who lack morals, who beg and manipulate, who envy.
But, above all, it is a film about men – actually, women – who love selflessly and altruistically. And this preternatural capacity, which turns human beings into gods, is wisely captured and paid homage to in each frame by Mendoza. Therefore, from the everydayness of the story and the characters that populate it, this film is constructed as simple as it is beautiful, a little gem that we shouldn’t miss…
…so we come to the end of another stage of our «Journey to the East«.