Sunday, 13 January 2008
Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros, Philippines, 2005)
Director: Auraeus Solito.
Principal cast: Nathan Lopez, J.R. Valentin, Soliman Cruz, Ping Medina.
Preadolescent sexuality, especially if it veers from the mainstream, is most often surrounded by a lot of hysteria. People who otherwise come across as balanced and rational suddenly seem to lose all their critical faculties. Any interest in this topic will more likely than not lead to, at least, a few eyebrows raised in suspicion – why this “unhealthy” interest? It’s one of those few taboo questions which have been left standing barely touched in our otherwise fairly open-minded age. However, the topic in question is the background of “The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros”, a neorealist Filipino film which has now been a successful part of the international film festival circuit for the past couple of years. Several critics have pointed out that had the film’s main protagonist been a 12 year old girl, this film would probably not have made it outside of the Philippines. They might be right. But it’s the fact that it’s this aspect of the film that obviously makes it “interesting” internationally that is poignant in itself. Preadolescent queerness as just a matter of fact seems to be a pretty big deal in most societies across the globe.
Maximo, a 12 year old boy, lives in the slums of Manila with his father and two older brothers who earn their living by selling stolen mobile phones and other easily disposable consumer goods. The opening scenes of the film, set against the popular and recently deceased Filipino singer Yoyoy Villame’s song “My country, the Philippines”, introduce us to these slums in an almost documentary style - decaying buildings, piles of rubbish, dirty sewages. In the midst of all the misery a hand picks up a beautiful flower. It turns out to be Maximo’s hand and the flower immediately becomes an ad hoc ornament on his head. Swaying his hips and generally balancing his fragile body in a fashion which would make a few professional models rethink their next catwalk moves, he graciously parades through the narrow alleys and backyards of Manila’s underprivileged inhabitants. His dressing style and body language aren’t the only things that set him apart from his surroundings in these slums or anywhere else for that matter – his interests and home chores aren’t very typical for a 12 year old boy. At home, he does all the cooking, sewing and cleaning for the whole family while his free time is spent in the company of his like-minded peers organising pretend Miss Universe beauty pagents (all in drag) and watching romantic films on DVD. Since his family can put him to a better use at home, he has now stopped attending the school. This doesn’t bother Maximo much though. He seems to be enjoying his life and while realising that he is different from most of his peers, he seems to be fully accepted by his family and surroundings – nobody bats an eyelid at his rampant queerness, let alone tries to do anything about it. His family adores him and his neighbours seem all to be on friendly terms with him. One day, however, he is assaulted by a local youth gang whose only objective seems to be “to have some fun” at his expense. A rookie cop, Victor, comes to his rescue and takes him home. Life will never be the same thereafter.
Maximo falls head over heels in love with this new officer of the law which presents a real problem for his family. If there is something they don’t need in their lives, it’s to be exposed to a policeman who doesn’t seem to go with the flow at the otherwise fairly corrupt local precinct. To make things even worse, one of Maximo’s brothers commits a murder while attempting a robbery, and with the arrival of a new police chief, who has a few scores to settle with Maximo’s father, things get completely out of hand. In the midst of all this drama, there is Maximo and his first taste of a romantic involvement. He is effectively split between loyalty to his family and his feelings for Victor. Unfortunately, there are no fairy-tale endings in the brutal world of Manila’s slums - only premature adulthood. Still, Maximo hasn’t blossomed fully yet. His rude awakening to the cruelties of the world surrounding him hasn’t killed the scent of the flower he has put on his head.
“The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros” is not just a film about a queer kid in the hood and his gutshaker of a first love. It is also a depiction of life in the slums. Despite the fact that Maximo’s family can’t be described as law-obeying citizens of the local community, their portrayal is rather nuanced in that they are shown as both loving and caring – there is nothing monstrous about them at all. If anything, you can only pity them and their choice of lifestyle. One gets the feeling that it hardly was their first choice. The police eventually crack down on this family with all its might, but somehow you don’t feel that justice has been served, rather on the contrary. Maximo’s initial purity of heart could all but survive this “justice”, but the film’s authors don’t want us to believe it’s gone either. There must always be a light at the end of the tunnel and we also get to see a glimpse of that.
Maximo’s queerness at 12 is what sets this film apart from other similar neorealist depictions of the life of the underprivileged in a third world country. At the same time, nowhere in the course of the film is it made the focal point of the story. This is simply the way things are. Period. That in itself is a refreshing aspect of this film. Maximo doesn’t get killed or maimed. If anything, he is loved and protected. He falls in love with Victor – the problem isn’t that he falls in love with a man, it’s that the man in question is a cop. Even Victor himself seems to accept the fact that the kid has a crash on him. He only distances himself from Maximo when he is forced to cross swords with his family. And despite all that happens he seeks to reestablish their previous friendship afterwards. There is no doubt that Maximo’s obsession with Victor is homoerotic, but it is portrayed almost in religious terms – both when they both pray on their knees in church and when Maximo washes blood off Victor’s wounded body. We are shown the purity of the first love. And also its intensity. The fact that it’s homosexual is in all essence just a piece of background information in this film. And that’s the way it should be in an ideal world.
Here you can watch the film's trailer
A special tribute to the recently deceased Filipino singer Yoyoy Villame. Here you can listen to his song "My country, the Philippines" which is part of the film's soundtrack.