As early as the 1960s, key cities in Europe had already been used as setting for some Filipino films.
Dolphy went with Pilar Pilapil to Madrid for El Pinoy Matador. Prior to that, Dolphy and Pilar also flew to Rome with Nida Blanca and Ricky Belmonte for Up, Up and Away.
Amalia Fuentes also did a lot of movies in Europe, but the most memorable one was Santa Teresa de Avila – shot, yes, in Avila in Spain.
Fifty years later, we can really say that films are truly are a reflection of life. In this new millennium, a number of local films are still shot in Europe. But the stories are no longer about Filipinos traveling to Europe for leisure.
In Caregiver, Sharon Cuneta, a school teacher in the story, flies to London to wipe the butt of elderly people. In Milan, the characters played by Piolo Pascual and Claudine Barretto find themselves in that Italian city as illegal workers doing menial jobs.
The shift in story lines of local movies shot in Europe only validates how hard life had become for the ordinary Filipino.
In Just a Stranger, which opens in cinemas this week, the Filipino – at last – is back in Europe once more as a tourist. Plus, the setting is new – in Lisbon in Portugal, which, if I am not mistaken, had never been used as a locale in Philippine cinema.
Actually, Lisbon is used in Just a Stranger only in the beginning of the film. But this is crucial to the story because that is where the two main characters meet. Anne, a lonely and bored wife to Edu Manzano, joins her friends in a tour of Lisbon. At the beach, she meets Marco Gumabao, the son of the Philippine ambassador to Portugal. The two have a one-night stand and the next time they meet – by accident – is in Manila where they finally have a full-blown affair.
Anne is supposed to be 30 in the story, while Marco is a school dropout at 19.
Since Anne still looks young and lovely, the May-December affair doesn’t come off icky at all. And so, as a viewer, you root at once for this romantic pair.
Anne’s character – though an adulteress – is quite sympathetic because she is stuck in a loveless marriage. Her husband, who is twice her age, may be rich, but is actually cold as a fish.
Marco, on the other hand, may be a giant of a man, but is a child at heart. Although he has traveled the world, his disposition is still that of a boy.
Adultery, of course, is not new as a theme in the movies – not in local films, not in Hollywood and especially not in the works of the European masters.
But adultery is presented in different forms on the big screen. In Lino Brocka’s Adultery (1984), Vilma Santos, although married to Phillip Salvador, gets into an affair with Mario Montenegro out of necessity. You don’t tingle in your seat in the theater over that one
It’s different in Just a Stranger though. Somehow you get mesmerized with the lead characters’ torrid affair – even if you know that what they are doing is wrong, oh, terribly wrong.
For sure, it helps that the lovers here are both good-looking. The photography should also be credited for setting the film’s romantic mood. And then, there is the lighting, which is not as bright as those in Star Cinema feel-good movies.
Although the Lisbon setting figures only in the beginning, the European feel is carried all the way to the Philippines where Anne and Marco actually begin their illicit relationship.
The choice of location contributes to the European feel of the movie – the all-brick San Fernando Old Train Station museum in Pampanga where Marco finds work as a tour guide and the elaborate church where Anne confesses her sins to a young priest, played by Pinoy Big Brother alumnus Josef Elizalde. Oh, those scenes are deliciously funny.
But why the European feel? I don’t know if that was intentional on the part of the director, Jason Paul Laxamana. But I can’t blame him if he purposely put European touches to the film because, let’s admit it, that continent is often associated with romance.
Laxamana is lucky that his female lead looks European. Of course, Anne is half-Aussie, but weren’t the ancestors of Australian people British?
The temperament displayed by the character of Anne also has shades of the European woman we know in films – passionate and carefree. The only thing lacking is Anne having unshaven armpit hair.
Her character in Just a Stranger is also made to appear mysterious. What was she before she married her husband? Are her parents still alive? Does she have relatives?
The film refuses to answer all those questions in the viewer’s mind. Fortunately, Anne’s character still comes out whole despite the lack of a back story.
On the part of Marco, at least, he is shown having parents – Robert Sena and Isay Alvarez. Too bad, he doesn’t look like either of them. Maybe they should have made him adopted in the story – that could have added more angst to his character.
But whatever little imperfections the movie has is compensated by the wonderful chemistry of the two lead performers. Aside from the steamy love scenes. They are most effective in their light intimate moments, especially when Marco teases Anne about her age. All that looks fun – maybe because Anne is comfortable about all that teasing. Surely, she is very confident about herself and the way she looks at 30.
Again, the age difference between the two doesn’t seem significant and it is very believable that a young man like Marco would fall hard for an older woman like Anne. Actually, that happens in real life. Think Vilma Santos and Ralph Recto. Or even Kris Aquino and James Yap – although that didn’t exactly work out in the end.
Anne and Marco look good together and work well together. Of course, I don’t see an AnCo tandem in the offing. But then, why not?
Just a Stranger works as a romantic movie primarily because of the magic they obviously have between them. And, of course, there’s the fluid storytelling and the European texture that helps make the film look truly romantic.
But like what Anne says in the film’s trailer, they will both pay for their sins. Well, they did – the both of them. But this much you can say about the message of the film: To err is human, but sometimes fun.
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