In Dreams: A Review of Bagane Fiola’s Sonata Maria

Bagane Fiola’s second film Sonata Maria (2014) is proudly Davao-made.

Sonata Maria wears its identity as an independently Davao-made film like a badge of pride and courage. Matched by the insistence to project a certain Davao individuality wherever he takes the film – to a local film festival in Cebu to a commercial theater in Davao – the director, Bagane Fiola indeed should be proud of this badge for it paved way for some sort of a silent feat; Sonata might just be the first Davao-produced independent film (from its director, crew, cast and location) to be shown theatrically in commercial theaters.

In January, I did an interview with Fiola during the shoot of the film and asked him the usual questions about influence and thoughts about filmmaking. “Film is the ultimate outlet of imaginations, fantasies, dreams and strange memories,” he told me, which could be said of any art, but seeing the film finally on the big screen (I saw it at a poorly projected Cinematheque screening before its commercial run the week after), Fiola’s musings on film made perfect sense, because Sonata is this weird mishmash of dreams and memory, that lucid state of semi-consciousness just before one wakes up.

The film opens with the camera looking up at a blue sky as it snakes through a familiar street for Davaoeños – the Magsaysay Street, one of the city’s oldest. Left and right one can see the familiar low-rise buildings, some old and some repainted to look new, an old hotel, the back portion of the local government building, the recognizable effigy of the San Pedro Church, perhaps Davao’s most storied religious structure, and pesky electrical wire connections, which ruins our view. This nod to the city is perhaps just a tangential reference that may occur consequentially as one tries to find the distinct identity of Davao in the film.

At the heart of it is our wounded protagonist, Ramon Bonifacio, a product of a changing history of the city but whose Davaoeño-ness made unrecognizable by a mixture of foreign influences (while Ramon recites a poem in Cebuano, he swoons over J.S. Bach in a conversation). Ramon’s day is set in motion as he finds a gun left by a security guard in the restroom of the call center he works in and we go through a day in his life with the nagging question of whether he would pull the trigger or not. At a key moment in the film, this obvious narrative device is almost abandoned, when he meets with Maria, a former band mate who, we are made to believe, is the one who got away.

This aspect of the film is probably Fiola’s strongest suit, the way the conversations between Ramon and Maria take aimless directions, and the way it almost shapes up into something concrete but isn’t really quite there, attempts at rekindling something that is drowned by the industrial noise of the carnival, a weird but somewhat magical choice for a rendezvous (perhaps a dream sequence in itself, no?). In a way, Sonata feels like a companion piece to Fiola’s little-seen Way to the Sunset (2009), where a young Japinoy (Japanese-Filipino) meets with a young Davaoeña for the first time; only in Sonata they transform into some sort of new, sad romantics. The influence of Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy is evident, even the way the animated conversation quickly turns into a different, not-so-pleasant route, feels like the moment Jesse and Celine where on the verge of a battle-of-the-sexes word fight in Before Midnight.

But Sonata’s Ramon only has moments and memories of Maria, an unfinished song and poems left unwritten, not a lifetime of togetherness and familiarity, and his lips restrain himself to prevent the reunion from turning into one of his constant absurd dreams. There is a beautiful dreamlike sequence where Ramon recites a poem in Cebuano while fleeting images of Maria fill the screen, which recalls Jane Campion’s Bright Star, where a young John Keats recites a poem to his paramour Fanny in voice-over, the film resonating the ache and eloquence of Keats words through its unhurried beauty and elegance. The surreal quality of Maria’s images and the way it impinges on Ramon’s memory has that playful quality of Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. And PK Whittmer balances gracefully the mystery and melancholy to a familiar trope, dissolving into some version of a manic pixie dream girl herself.

But it isn’t quite a love story as others who have seen the film would like to believe; rather it’s singularly character-driven. There are oddities that occur in Ramon’s dreams and version of reality, some of it quite funny, like the chickens and an old woman saying the Grace Prayer backwards, while some ridiculous, like the obvious rip-off of one of Guillermo del Toro’s creatures in Pan’s Labyrinth, that adds up to Ramon’s persona, this walking contradiction, emotionally embattled and perpetually torn by abandoned ambitions and existential ramblings. His solitude suggests he might be friendless (or has little friends), curling up into his cocoon of modern-day banishment, and the audience is his confidante, whether we like it or not.

At 70 minutes, it already feels like a biopic, of some random guy (a millennial perhaps?), maybe somebody we know, a product of an unraveling history, of a generation of broken hearts and lost souls. Johnny Hager, portraying Ramon, with a distinct lackadaisical cadence in his enunciations, captures the ambivalence, impulsiveness and exasperation of someone filled with so much uncertainty and anxiety fittingly. Which is why the ending, how Ramon is forced to make a decision is a disservice to his empathetic performance and an all-too tidy denouement for a film that wallowed in the joy of aimlessness and absurdity, as if the director suddenly ran out of things to say.

Sonata Maria has its heart in the right place, even if it doesn’t really say anything new or just simply recycling the thoughts that we can’t quite say to ourselves.

– Jay Rosas

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