Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros
Review by Tom Huddleston
Posted on 16 October 2006
Features: The Times BFI 50th London Film Festival
Although already on release in the US, The Blossoming Of Maximo Oliveros arrives fresh and surprisingly unheralded at the London Film Festival. The very definition of a low budget triumph, the film cost less than $40,000, took thirteen days to shoot and became one of the year’s big hits in its home country before venturing out to conquer the world, one festival at a time. As well as winning numerous trophies at international festivals, including Best Debut Film in Montreal and the International Jury Prize in Berlin, the film has also been selected as the Philippines’ official entry for the 2006 Foreign Language Oscar.
Like a luminous take on City Of God, Maximo Oliveros focuses on the trials of the titular cross-dressing 12-year-old and his shiftless but fiercely protective gangster family as they ply their various shady trades on the bustling streets of downtown Manila. Following the death of his mother, ‘Maxi’ has taken her place in the family unit—he cooks, cleans and mends his brothers’ shorts, in between bouts of rehearsing for Miss Universe and running numbers for his Dad. Trapped in an alley late one night by a pair of predatory hoodlums, Maxi is saved by new cop on the beat Victor, with whom he promptly develops a lustful fascination. The conflict between Victor’s crusading ideals and the reality of Maxi’s life soon threaten to tear the family apart.
The surprise — and the joy — in Maximo Oliveros is its unstinting willingness to see the best in every situation. On the surface this is a work of straight neorealism, capturing the sights, the sounds, almost the smells of a bustling third world community in all its vivid, colourful glory. But this is no Bicycle Thieves: there’s crime, poverty, drugs, prostitution, but it’s all so cheerful, so practical and uncomplaining. We’re seeing the world through Maxi’s eyes and, for a while at least, his world is perfect.
The opening minutes of the film are a profound culture shock. Maxi dresses, acts, even walks like an 18-year-old American girl, flouncing down the street in a tight fitting tube top and miniskirt, swinging his hips and preening, joking with the guys on the street. It’s a startling image, and one that takes a while to sink in. The realisation that Maxi’s rather more masculine family accept, even encourage his behaviour is also something of a surprise: an early scene has father Paco handing his son a banknote, telling him “Buy yourself some of your sanitary napkins.” Even for Western audiences weaned on gay culture and foreign cinema this feels like a step into the unknown, particularly when combined with the vivid insanity of the street scenes: neon lights over crumbling colonial stone, dogs loose on the street, children lining up to laugh at a pair of naked men beaten and dumped on a rubbish heap. For a while the film feels almost like science fiction, a glimpse into a world so far divorced from our own it could be another planet.
It’s all rooted in the characters of Maxi and his family—father Paco is gruff but loving, willing to do whatever it takes to protect his family and their livelihood. Middle brother Bogs is an effete but kindly joker, getting his kicks teasing the local hooker. Oldest brother Boy is insular, more threatening, and it’s his murder of a student that sparks the conflict in the plot. Their unwavering acceptance of Maxi in all his wild fabulescence centres the film, giving a sense of security amid the mounting madness. The performances are rough but genuine, particularly Soliman Cruz as Paco, who brings real depth and sadness to his role as the archetypal gangster with a heart of gold. Nathan Lopez is a revelation as Maximo, strolling the line between innocent boychild and eager romantic, attempting to entice J.R. Valentin’s placid, resolute Victor with gifts of food and affection. Their relationship is remarkably similar to that between Zoe Weizenbaum and Jeremy Renner in Michael Cuesta’s Twelve And Holding, and although the two films eventually diverge there is that same sense of giddy longing and awkward, preteen sexuality. Extraordinary that two such different filmmakers should have found themselves exploring identical territory, with equally revelatory and affecting results.
Solito’s work shows enormous promise, but shot as it is on digital video and clearly aimed at a wide audience, Maximo Oliveros offers few opportunities to stretch his directorial muscles. The most notable features of the film’s visuals are the vibrant colours and the studied facial close-ups, often focussing on moments of silent contemplation or weariness. The musical soundtrack is simple and sparingly used, most of the time we’re bombarded with a flood of chattering voices, barking dogs, roaring engines.
The script by Michiko Yamamoto is rigidly constructed, stealing wholesale from American gangster movies and romantic comedies to create something familiar and resolutely populist, despite the outlandish subject matter. But she also allows herself and the audience room to breathe, to have a little fun—a scene where the family discuss the pronunciation of the English word ‘schemer’ is breathlessly funny (they eventually decide on ‘iskeheymer’). Her characters feel solid, lived in- each of the leads is given a subtle but convincing backstory, from Victor’s strict Christian upbringing to Paco’s unwilling shift into crime, after his inability to pay hospital bills took his wife away.
The Blossoming Of Maximo Oliveros is riding the crest of an international wave: coming of age stories seem to be in vogue this decade, as filmmakers across the world realise the limitless potential for personal expression, social comment and even polemic in stories about children and teenagers. Taking their points of reference from Les Quatre Cents Coups, Kes and E.T., these films attempt to show us the world through fresh eyes, unique perspectives. Maximo Oliveros succeeds effortlessly: one of the finest, funniest, most entertaining films of the year.