Given the frequently parochial attitudes of the British film public towards ‘subtitled films’, and the absence of any Western stars, the British-Filipino film Metro Manila isn’t likely to fill many seats in British cinemas, and it certainly hadn’t filled many in the Derby cinema where we went to see it last night.
This is a pity, because it’s a cracking good movie on many different levels, which combines all the ingredients of a nerve-shredding thriller with some searing social commentary. Somewhat bizarrely, Metro Manila is a contender for this year’s Oscars in the Best Foreign Language picture category, despite the fact that it was written and directed by British director Sean Ellis.
But the film is set in the Philippines and Tagalog is the main language spoken, with powerful and convincing performances from everyone involved. It tells the story of Oscar Ramirez and his wife Mai, a dispossessed farming couple who move to the slums of Manila from the impoverished countryside with their two children, only to find themselves trapped and blocked at every turn in a corrupt and sleazy society where the poor have no support and few options.
So far so neorealist, and despite his 21st century Michael Mann-ish portrayal of the hard, garish surfaces of urban Manila, Ellis has clearly seen a few Italian movies in his time, in the cinematic devices he brings to bear to contrast the naivete, desperation and essential decency of Ramirez and his family with the sweaty, money-grubbing and amoral society where they must sink or swim.
Even though Metro Manila is shot in colour, the cinematographic references to de Sica and Rossellini are clear, particularly in the portraits and close-ups of Ramirez’s young daughter Angel, and the lyrical moments of intimacy and tenderness that bring the humanity of its protagonists into focus. Like the great Italian movies, Ellis has plucked a gripping individual story out of a wider social issue – the great migratory movements from the countryside to the city that are currently changing the shape of many Third World countries in the way that Europe was once transformed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Like the couple in The Bicycle Thieves, Ramirez and his family are caught in an urban society in which injustice and exploitation are systemic and endemic, and every attempt to improve their situation just prompts another setback and disaster. Their predicament is powerfully rendered by strikingly authentic and convincing performances from the lead and minor characters, especially from the stage actor Jake Macapagal.
Where Metro Manila fundamentally departs from the neorealist tradition is in its tough, pulsating and tense thrilleresque heist plot. When Ramirez lands a job as an armed guard escorting armoured trucks, he thinks his luck has changed. It hasn’t, and he finds himself used as a pawn in a devious scam that I can’t really say anymore about, except that its twists and turns will surprise anyone lucky to see it.
And you really should, because cinema like this needs to be supported, and more than ever we need films that tells the stories of people whose voices are really heard, but whose struggles and dramas are shaping the world we live in even if we aren’t aware of it.
Hats off to Ellis for going out to Manila to get these stories, and for having turned them into a powerful, gripping and uncompromising film that few people who see it are likely to forget.