Life is a never ending cycle of misery.

 

            This rather pessimistic outlook, seems to be the unifying element of Ron Bryant’s third digifilm “Rotonda.” As some of you may already know, Rotonda is the Spanish term for circle. In layman’s term here in the Philippines, Rotonda refers to anything on a road that is circular or oval-shaped (the borders of Quezon City and Manila as well as Manila and Pasay City both have such a structure). The digifilm revolves around the lives of thieves, street thugs, whores, drug addicts, and crooked cops and the similarly tragic events that intertwine all of their lives.

 

            The principal character of the film is Abner, portrayed excellently by Mark Gil. Abner is a tabloid reporter who, in the first few images of the film, is seen walking aimlessly into the filthy and clogged streets of Manila. This rather aimless walking typifies Abner’s existence in the whole film, and come to think of it, the rest of the characters throughout this bleak and dark movie. Abner, half consciously entering a cheap nightclub, is drawn to Racquel – a professional whore who has pinned her hopes and dreams on her younger sister, whom she later finds out to be a victim of sexual molestation and pimping by Racquel’s own live in partner, the heartless and avengeful Dima, played by theater actor Mario Magallona. Dima, on the other hand, is planning to get back at his former kingpin who unsuccessfully tried to liquidate him in the past and is now a cripple, the character played by Celso Ad Castillo. Being a cripple, he is now under the care of an amateur drummer, Chito, played in the film by Jeffrey Quizon. Chito, on the other hand, while religiously performing his onligations to the now crippled godfather, is also a drug pusher and one of his regular suppliers is a rather wealthy colegiala who  in turn is under the not so welcome protection of a crooked cop, played by Emilio Garcia.

 

            If the storyline seems complicated, maybe because it really is. The director aims to show the abject hopelessness, desperation, and moral depravity of the characters in the dog-eat-world that is the city of Manila. In the end, some of them are killed, the others manage to escape, and yet others find some artificial form of redemption and thus continue to survive in the city’s dark, filthy streets. Yet, they find no release from their hapless conditions, and there would surely be a day when tragedy or the liberating pangs of death would get them. The title of the film reflects this vicious cycle of desperation and hopelessness, with one character who happens to play an idiot is seen curiously wearing a filthy dress of blue, red, and white, hence alluding to the reality that the lives of these miserable characters are directly connected to the national condition.

 

            The characters in the film are all real and realistic. Perhaps once could find an exact equivalent of each character in the film in any slum area within Metro Manila. However, while the actors perform their parts in an above average manner, the fact remains that the characterization is thin and even caricaturish for some. The character of Celso Ad Castillo is thread-thin in terms of characterization, and the part played by Emilio Garcia is forgettable, if not ridiculous. Nevertheless, Mark Gil is perfect as the desperate journalist. He fits his role to a tee that his every facial expression and acting nuances effectively communicates the deep emotional scars of this wounded man. Truly, he is one gifted, if not underrated thespian who happens to come from an illustrious family of highly respected actors. Jeffrey Quizon is in his usual competent self. This actor is admirable in the sense that he can turn a short role to a meaty and engaging performance. Personally, this author would even dare say that this Quizon is better than all the other Quizons who went before him – even his father!

 

            But perhaps the greatest revelation in this film is Merryl Soriano. When she entered the indie scene, it is already clear that she had the makings of a fine actress. In Rotonda, she sheds her black and white image as the prostitute who has been numbed by her troubled past but has retained an all too human heart.

 

            It could have been much better if the script has been fully realized to include a deeper characterization for all characters. Admittedly, this could slow down the pace of this tautly edited picture. Unfortunately, to some extent, the sacrificing of characterization over pacing spells a sort of missed chance for this film, turning it into a well disguised melodrama on urban poverty.

 

            While the cinematography is competent, the film is overscored at times. Initially, the sound may be irritating as the noise of the streets and the verbal jousts of the characters combine with diegetic music emanating from the radio or the television set. But towards the middle, you get the idea that the film seems noisiness parallels the chaotic lives and emotional clogs of the characters. The production design is rather impressive. The motel room where Abner and Racquel checks into underscores the feeling of imprisonment, paranoia, and desperation that both characters are facing. The mammoth house where Chito and the ex-kingpin live also resembles the disparate treatment of the two residents to one another as their disfunctionality and neediness also becomes the source of their alienation. The film could only hint at the true relationship of both characters.

 

            Ron Bryant’s direction in this indie film is a big improvement from the heavy handed Baryoke. And though his film may carry a very dark message, he drives his point to the fore and through the heart.

 

            All in all, Rotonda is ultimately a competent melodrama masquerading in the tough exteriors of the gangster film. And though the director of this independent film may frown at the thought of classifying his film, it can be said that the film doesn’t really communicate much in the end – or at least something that we are still unaware of.

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