I’m uploading this critique for my Film Theory and Criticism classes to read.
by ©Jamal Ashley Abbas
(The movie is based on the life of Anita Pamintuan, a schoolteacher who was found dead in the street during the height of the Public School Teachers’ strike)
The film opens with credits and close-ups of various class pictures. After the credits, the lead character, Mila (played by Maricel Soriano) is shown in the school grounds conducting her pupils in singing Billy Joel’s “The Greatest Love of All” (“I believe the children are our future…”). This is the theme song of the movie. Mila is then shown conducting her class. She appears to enjoy teaching the children.
Next scene is a teachers’ meeting where the Principal (Caridad Sanchez) tells a teacher to leave his live-in boyfriend and marry a woman if he wants to remain a teacher in that school. The Principal also mentions her amazement that Mila, although married, does not use her husband’s surname.
Mila soon leaves her wife-beating husband and returns to her uncle’s house. She soon meets and falls in love with a younger (or younger-looking) man. She then lives with him. He turns out to be a shabu (crack) addict. She soon leaves him.
Meanwhile, the Manila Public School Teachers go on strike. Mila and her co-teachers, with a few exceptions, go on strike, too. The end to the strike is nowhere in sight. Some teachers go on a hunger strike.
Mila, feeling very depressed because of the loss of her lover, her pupils and her other disappointments – her husband and her mother — is completely at a loss. She walks around Manila. While drinking coffee from her thermos, a jeepney (jitney) driver, thinking that she was a coffee vendor, stops and orders coffee from her. This gives Mila the idea to sell coffee by the sidewalk.
From a petit bourgeois schoolmarm, she transforms herself into a homeless indigent stalking the streets of Ermita. She soon befriends the characters of that netherworld – prostitutes and street children – and teaches them how to read and write.
She refuses to go back to her past – to her uncle, her mother or her co-teachers. She decides to stay in Ermita to “save” the life of her new friends – Winona (Kaye Abad), the prostitute, the still virgin daughter of another prostitute (Cherry Pie Picache) and the street children.
One day, she’s found dead in her sleep out in the street. The teachers’ movement gives a huge funeral for her. Her friends from the streets and from the school deliver their respective eulogies.
COMMENTARY (SOCIAL / IDEOLOGICAL)
In “Mila”, the invisible hand of hegemony is quite apparent. Antonio Gramsci’s notion of hegemony questions culture, power and ideology. Gramsci suggests that power is wielded in the arena of “culture, in the realm of everyday life – where people essentially agree to current social arrangements.” “Media helps the powerful exercise this cultural leadership since they (the media) are the sites where we produce and reproduce ways of thinking about society”
Ideology, for the Marxists, “often means the belief systems that help justify the actions of those in power by distorting and misrepresenting reality.” It is the “basic ways in which the world is defined.” Hegemony is the shaping of “commonsense” assumptions.
The old Kennedy refrain “ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country” resonates (“invisibly yet tangibly”} all throughout the film. Despite the very low wages of public school teachers and the growing number of victims of society among the poor – the drug addicts, the prostitutes, the street children, the homeless, etc.—the film does not put the blame on the Government.
The film’s theme song declares that “the children are our future” but it is not clear on who is to be responsible for them. It even seems to say that the teachers must sacrifice and accept low wages for the sake of the children. In fact, the idea that one gets from the film is that public school teachers should follow the example of Mila. She taught the Ermita kids for no fee at all.
The Classic Christian doctrine of “the meek shall inherit the earth” resounds throughout the film. Mila even renounces one of the most basic needs of (wo)man; namely, shelter. Like Mother Teresa who gave up society to live among the slums of Calcutta, Mila gave up a petit bourgeois lifestyle to live among the denizens of the Ermita underworld. The Voice of the Church and the Government, the vanguards of the Philippine Establishment, is heard loud and clear: Sacrifice! Do Not Petition for Wage Increase! Do Not Ask the Government to Care for the Poor and Children! You Do It Yourself! Forget Materiality! Sacrifice and You Will Find Redemption – Not In This Life But In The Hereafter!
The film tries to impress the “commonsense” idea that education is the path to growth and prosperity. According to the advertisements for this film, Mila “empowered” the denizens of Ermita. This “empowerment” was done through teaching the street children and the prostitutes how to read and write. But the story itself contradicts this premise. Mila was educated and was even an educator, yet she did not prosper and she died absolutely penniless.
The film tries to deviate viewer’s attention from the government as the immediate cause of Mila’s (and her colleagues’) miseries, by implying that Mila’s problems with her husband and later, her lover were the immediate causes of her decision to leave everything behind. But it was the government who refused to give in to the demands of Mila and her co-teachers for a pay hike. The government’s refusal led to the strike and the unemployment of Mila and her colleagues, which led to the deterioration of the teachers’ lives, especially that of Mila’s.
The psychological effects of an irresponsible and unloving mother, a sadist husband, a whimpering shabu addict for a lover, were aggravated by the loss of a job, nay, a vocation. They are enough to give anyone a nervous breakdown.
But the director did not want to show the slow and agonizing descent of Mila into poverty and desperation – that would be subversive. Instead, he showed a Mother Teresa clone among the streetwalkers and street children of Ermita – a Saint among the Sinners. The Hierarchy – the rightists and the Church, would surely approve that.
Hegemonic ideas were neatly tucked in the various scenes of the movie. For example, the Principal accused a male teacher of homosexuality and talked about being role models for their pupils. Yet the adulterous affair of Mila was not commented upon by anyone. Although the director and writer are probably gay, the film seems to portray the dominant ideology’s preference for heterosexuality, even if illegal (i.e., adulterous), over homosexuality.
In Filipino films, the characters, esp. the lead ones, necessarily look for the light at the end of the tunnel. But what if there is no light at the end of the tunnel? Mila’s character was a continuing slide into hell. She couldn’t possibly have found redemption from the streets of Ermita. On the contrary, it was hell itself. If she simply needed to “save” lost souls, she didn’t have far to look. There was her mother, her husband, her lover and even her co-teachers, not to mention her pupils. She didn’t have to go to Ermita for that. At any rate, the fact that she was found dead in her sleep out in the street proves that there was no light at the end of the tunnel, except the light of Death.
Yet, in the film, Mila found the light; her “mission” was to save the street children and prostitutes of Ermita. This “looking for the light” is symptomatic of the tight rein of the Establishment on the mass media. Films like “Orapronobis”, where the characters see no redemption in the Justice system, the Church or in Heaven and the only way out is to Fight the whole System or Die in the process, are simply banned. They would rock the boat. In “Mila”, in spite of the list of traumas the lead character and everybody else undergo, no blame is put in the hands of the Government. The moral justification for the teachers’ hunger strike is even put into question by Mila’s own abandonment of the cause.
Films like “Mila” reinforce the idea that fighting for a political / material cause, like the teachers’ right to higher pay, is detrimental to society. But a “spiritual cause” is commendable, such as helping the street children and prostitutes. The film reinforces the belief that one must help oneself and not depend on the government. The film subtly urges the audience to help the less privileged and to render their services for free so that when they die, people will give orations on how noble and selfless they were.
The modernists, post modernists and semiologists, among others, denounce the so-called realism in films. Be that as it may, in Philippine cinema, realism is very well entrenched. In fact, even horror and fantasy films (with encantos, encantas, diwatas, duwendes, etc.) are considered actual representations of reality. And as Andrew stated, “When a culture consistently pictures in some medium its version of reality, and when these pictures are generally swallowed by members of that culture as reality, we are in the midst of the workings of ideology.”
The film Mila is patently an ideological film. It presents the European Dark Ages’ Roman Catholic idea of sacrifice and martyrdom, the renunciation of the “City of Man” to gain entry to the “City of God.” This is a clear example of film used wittingly or unwittingly as a tool for hegemony and control over sections of the populace.
I lived through this particular historical episode. I remember that my friends and I were aghast and horrified that a schoolteacher could actually die homeless because of the strike. The public school teachers were already in the fringes of Middle Class society. This event could have only signified that the public school teachers had slid down further in the economic ladder. And the proposition that education is the best tool in the climb to socio-economic betterment was shown to be a myth. Public school teachers not only have education but also are educators themselves.
In making films, Filipino producers and directors always point out the fact that the most important factor is the potential box office returns. Generally speaking, stories are allegedly not chosen because of their themes and subtexts.
“MILA” was produced by STAR Cinema, the movie arm of ABS-CBN, which is the country’s biggest gatekeeper. However, we cannot presume that the movie’s themes and subtexts were deliberately chosen and imposed upon the director and writer. The director, Joel Lamangan, and the writer, Ricky Lee, are both known to be “social realists”, i.e., they try to portray the “real situation” of the masses.
This being the case, perhaps it can be said that the film “MILA” proves that some hegemonic ideas are already so well entrenched that even social realist writers and directors do not notice them. These ideas have become “common sense”, “natural” and “invisible”. Thus, a potentially explosive / subversive story was turned into a tool of the powers that be. A (potentially Marxist) heroine of the working class was turned into an apolitical saint by the ruling class.
The excess in Philippine melodramas could probably be measured in terms of volume of tears produced by the actors. In Philippine movies, children are expected to produce as much tears as possible. This movie is no exception. Perhaps Filipino kids really are crybabies.
The character Mila said that she doesn’t want to show her emotions. But almost from the very beginning, she (Maricel Soriano) was full of emotions, bursting to cry or shout at any time.
Ricky Lee’s screenplay seems to have some missing parts. What was Mila’s relationship with her mother? She tells her co-teacher Linda (Princess Punzalan), “Mula nang nawala ang nanay ko…” Yet much later her uncle (Berting Labra) tells her that her mother is sick. She however did not visit her until much later. She asks her mother (Eva Darren), “Bakit ‘nyo ako ipinamigay?” The mother answers, “Hindi ko alam.” What was that all about?
And what was the deal with her photo on the wall of her uncle’s and mother’s house? She seemed to be surprised to see her old graduation photo at her uncle’s house. She lived there, surely she must have seen it a hundred times. And when she saw the same picture at her mother’s house, the mother said that the uncle gave it. Was it given a long time ago, or just recently?
When Mila left her husband and returned to her uncle’s house, her uncle’s family did not even greet her! That is rather unrealistic. She was supposed to be friendly, especially to kids. Even if her aunt and cousins did not like her, they would have at least greeted her.
She was supposed to have made friends in the streets. Why didn’t her friends offer her at least a space in their rooms to sleep in? She taught them how to read and write; she read and wrote letters for them. She made some money from vending, too. Why couldn’t she afford a bed space among friends? Did she ever take a bath? How about her toilet?
What was her motivation in living in the streets of Ermita? She complained that with her mother, her husband and her lover, she gave “one hundred percent” but did not receive as much. But the Ermita folks did not give her as much either. They didn’t even give her a space to sleep in.
There doesn’t seem to be any realization or growth for the lead character. She died as lonely and as confused as ever.
In the US and Europe, it is not rare to find professionals, even doctors, among the homeless and indigents. But these people usually had given up on life. They just drink themselves to oblivion. But Mila had not given up on life. Maybe she had given up on her life, but she was still concerned about other people’s lives – the street children and the streetwalkers.
In the film, Mila’s education and her grasp of the English language did not give her any financial edge over the other characters. Her boyfriend is uneducated, works as a waiter and belongs to the same social class as hers. The prostitutes are uneducated but they at least can afford to have roofs over their heads.
In a Latin American film, “Central Station”, the female lead character earns her living by typing / writing letters for illiterate clients in the capital’s central train station. Her “office” consists of a chair and a table. Yet she lives a decent life, with a flat of her own. It would appear that in that country, “education is power”. But in “Mila”, education is shown to be very important to kids and prostitutes, yet it was useless for Mila except as a vehicle for Sainthood.
As for the acting, it was generally OK. Since the role of Mila did not have a clear progression of emotional trauma, Maricel Soriano had to maintain the same amount of emotional tension throughout the film. Princess Punzalan’s acting was good while the children’s were melodramatic. The actor who played the husband needs lessons in acting while the actor who played the lover should have chosen a less demanding role. Berting Labra’s acting was quite contained, not his usual over-acting.
A DIFFERENT TREATMENT
If I were the director, I would have focused on the poverty of the teachers, which is actually not far removed from the poverty of the Ermita streetwalkers and street children. (Linda’s well-furnished house could not be typical.) With the long-drawn strike, the poverty of the teachers would really have been of great concern. The film would be a strong push for the upliftment of the well being of teachers, i.e, their pay should be increased, at the very least.
Instead of the film’s theme of children needing good selfless teachers and the seeming martyrdom of Mila, I would have made it into a psychological drama – the descent into hell of an ordinary woman caught powerless in the maelstrom of life. I would have focused on the personal suffering of Mila – her abandonment as a child by her mother; her perseverance in acquiring an education and having a profession; her suffering at the hands of her sadist husband; her helplessness in the family affairs of her pupils and colleagues; her aloneness and alienation from the world at large. (The existence of a caring extended family exemplified by her uncle must be explained away or eliminated.)
And then emphasis would be given to the episode where she meets a young lover who adores her. He gives her hope and reawakens her sexuality and self-confidence, especially after the experience with her husband. She finds meaning in life after all. Paradise regained.
But then comes another setback – the strike and her loss of job. While still reeling from the loss of income due to the strike, the potential danger to the lives of some of her colleagues who goes on hunger strike, and her separation from her pupils, she learns of the loss of job and the vice (drug addiction) of her lover. Paradise lost. This triggers her nervous breakdown.
She then finds herself in the streets of Ermita. But instead of a Mother Teresa clone, she is just an observer. Instead of being a Saint among Sinners, she is a disinterested traveler in Hades. She tries to save the virgin child of a prostitute from being abused. But this eventually results in the murder (“salvaging”) of Winona, another prostitute. This is the last straw and she goes berserk, raging against the Powers amidst stormy winds, rain, thunder and lightning until she collapses and dies.
The teacher’s movement then uses her death as a symbol of their struggle and the Press catches on. Eulogies, whether true or not, would then be said extolling her virtues.
A combined Realist/Surrealist approach to this film would be a great idea. While the world around Mila would be shown with sheer realism, how she views this world would be shown in a surrealistic mode. Thus Mila’s inner world could be better portrayed. As writers and scholars have often remarked, surrealist films do not portray an imaginary world but a real one where the fantastic is an integral part. The film could then touch on the dialectics of the inner and the outer, the objective and the subjective and the macro (what’s happening to the country) and the micro (what’s happening to her.)
That would have been a better treatment, but then, it would be another film altogether. This would show that “reality” could even be better presented using techniques like surrealism than using a purely social realist approach. Such a treatment would also rid the film of the hegemonic ideas of martyrdom and not fighting for one’s rights. On the other hand, it would not go against the hegemonic idea that education is desirable as it is a means to prosperity.
See video clip: MILA
Direction: Joel Lamangan
Screenplay: Ricky Lee
Production: STAR Cinema
Cast: Maricel Soriano, Cherry Pie Picache, Princess Punzalan, Piolo Pascual
 Croteau, David and William Hoynes (2000), Media/Society: Industries, Images and Audiences, 2nd ed., (Thousand Oaks: Pine Forge Press) p.163
 Ibid., pp.157-158
 Andrew, Dudley (1984) Concepts in Film Theory, (London: Oxford University Press) p.63
Everett, W. (1998). Screen as threshold: The disorienting topographies of Surrealist film. Screen, 39 (2), 141-152.