That not much happens in “Ang Kwento ni Mabuti,” is precisely its power. And while its premise is poverty as crisis and its context is the distance and removal that the poorer among us live with, not once did the film seem like poverty porn. Neither was it full of itself.
It would of course be easy to hate this film for not doing more, not being more, when it could’ve been less restrained. Yet, there is the fact that it didn’t need to be more than what it was, because what this movie has to drive this story is what most other films don’t have.
That is of course Nora Aunor.The noise of calm
There isn’t much to talk about given the context of Mabuti (Nora Aunor); her silence is borne of the fact that not much goes on in her life. She lives in Sitio Kasinggan in Nueva Vizcaya, with four young granddaughters under her care, all almost the same age, from a son and daughter who work in town hours away. Mabuti and the four girls live with Mabuti’s mother Guyang (Josephina Estabillo), who is always grouchy because she is exhausted by the state of things. Guyang is the perfect counterpoint to Mabuti’s disposition, without the former being a stereotype of the impoverished either.
That is, Guyang is not one to complain about the way things are, as she is one to get angry about it. She cannot understand Mabuti’s kind of parenting to Angge (Mara Lopez), who has three daughters without fathers, and Ompong (Arnold Reyes), who has left behind his daughter with Mabuti, too. Guyang is unhappy and discontented, and she takes it out on her four great-granddaughters who she insists must do more in the house, must work more, instead of playing all day. Guyang questions everything that goes on in the nuclear family of Mabuti. At some point she becomes a funny caricature, the voice of reason if not of conscience.
To say that Guyang is the noise to Mabuti’s quiet is to miss a lot in this film. The noise after all is already in the kind of life that this family lives, where there is no better future in sight, and there is just another granddaughter on the way. Every day, Mabuti goes and makes sure that she can pump water from the nearby irrigation to their home. She gathers vegetables as they are available, and lives off being given fruit and produce in exchange for healing the members of the tiny community she is part of. She has a line to the barangay captain, who sees her no matter what she needs; who encourages her to run for political office, which seems absurd given the barangay she is part of. What we see of Sitio Kasinggan is miles and miles of mountains and fields, dirt roads and lone bahay kubos. Mabuti seems to walk forever.