Thy Womb (Sinapupunan): Venice Review

Alluring scenery and a sympathetic lead performance help elevate an otherwise tepid, underdeveloped slice of Philippine ethno-drama.

Philippines entertainment legend Nora Aunor stars in a drama by award-winning director Brillante Mendoza.

An infertile midwife turns matchmaker for her aging husband in the ever-prolific Brillante Mendoza's colorfully ethnographic but torpid drama Thy Womb (Sinapupunan)premiering in Venice competition seven months after Isabelle Huppert collaboration Captive contended at Berlin. He teams up here with Nora Aunor, an enduring mega-star of his nation's cinema and music industries, making this Toronto selection an appealing box-office proposition at home. Overseas fortunes regarding distribution and TV sales will likely depend on the Venice jury, and unless it wins something big on the Lido a future of festival berths looks the most probable scenario.

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Mendoza, credited here as "Brillante Ma. Mendoza," won Best Director at Cannes in 2009 for what remains internationally his best-known work, the harrowingly violent Kinatay (aka The Execution of P.). Hostage chronicle Captive similarly put its cast and audience through a tough ordeal, but Mendoza is on restrained and lyrical form here as he immerses us in the unspoilt waterworld of the Philippine archipelago's south-western extremity, Tawi-Tawi.

A spectacularly big sky, big sea location just off the coast of Borneo, Tawi-Tawi is one of the country's five mainly Muslim provinces, and Mendoza's depiction of the religion's exotic but mild local variant adds much flavor to proceedings, especially the dazzlingly opulent garments worn at festive and formal occasions.

Shaleha (Aunor) and her fisherman husband Bangas-An (Bembol Roco) are practicing adherents of the faith. But it's never made clear how this informs Shaleha's decision to seek a second wife for his spouse, whose long-held desire to have a child of his own has in the past been temporarily satisfied by adopting. "Instead of cheating on me, I'd rather pick a bride for him," she confides to a friend.

Shaleha's search comprises the bulk of the slender narrative, taking its cue from the steady rhythms of life on and between the islands, a sedate pace with several long stretches of waiting. This patience-taxing approach does allow us to contemplate the district's natural and man-made environments via cinematographer Odyssey Flores' generally pin-sharp digital images. Among the wide range of locations visited is an abandoned church, whose dilapidated state eloquently hints that Christianity, while still the overwhelmingly dominant religion in the country, has receded as a force in this particular area.

Mendoza's offbeat choice of title, a reference to the Virgin taken from the Catholic prayer "Hail Mary," ties in with this aspect of the story. But Burgos' script only touches superficially on potentially tricky matters of faith and religion, and it's never clear what's going on when the Tawi-Tawi tranquility is shattered by the occasional appearance of gun-toting guerillas. Further frustrations mar the crucial final act, after a beautifully demure and surprisingly willing partner for Bangas-As emerges in the form of Mersila (Lovi Poe) with negative consequences for the self-sacrificing Shaleha ("for my husband's happiness I'd do anything").

Fifty-nine-year-old Aunor's 170-film career dates back to the 1960s, including collaborations with colossal figures of Philippine cinema such as Lino Brocka and Gerardo de Leon. And her elfin features, so powerfully expressive of both happiness and sorrow, help make Shahela an engaging, unlikely heroine here. It's a shame, then, that her character is ultimately somewhat ill-served by Burgos and Mendoza's overall design, especially in the underdeveloped finale which concludes on an ironic but naggingly unsatisfying note just as things are about to get much more interesting.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition), September 6, 2012.

Production company: Center Stage Productions
Cast: Nora Aunor, Bembol Rocco, Mercedes Cabral, Lovi Poe
Director: Brillante Ma. Mendoza
Screenwriter: Henry Burgos
Executive producers: Brillante Ma. Mendoza, Melvin Mangada, Jaime Santiago
Director of photography: Odyssey Flores
Production designer: 'Dante Mendoza' (i.e. Brillante Ma. Mendoza)
Music: Teresa Barrozo
Editor: Kats Serraon

Sales agent: Center Stage Productions, Mandaluyong City, The Philippines
No MPAA rating, 105 minutes