My expectations going into Lino Brocka’s 1975 film Manila in the Claw of Light, often cited as his masterpiece, were high. You see, one of my favorite discoveries, of any form of media, last year was Brocka’s 1976 follow-up film Insiang (see my thoughts here). Let me just say that it was wonderful to be back in Brocka’s hands. These two films are very different — Insiang is a tightly constructed psychological thriller where Manila in the Claws of Light is a much looser social drama — but the man behind the camera is clearly a master at telling these important stories about exploitation and abuse.
Manila in the Claws of Light is very much a tapestry of tragedy, a tale about the horrendous conditions imposed on the poor under the dictatorship of Ferdidand Marcos, who was in office from December 30, 1965 to February 25, 1986. Brocka begins the picture with a series of black and white short takes showing the day-to-day, oppressive routine of the people on the dirty Manila streets. It’s clear that each of them has their own unique story of struggle during the country’s period of economic stagnation compounded by abuses of power.
Eventually, though, the camera zooms in on one young man:
As we approach, the film transitions to color. This is Julio Madiaga, played by Rafael Roco, Jr. in his third film (Roco is more commonly credited and better known as Bembol Roco).
Julio is introduced to us looking off screen, searching, his mind, perhaps, elsewhere.
As the movie begins, Julio is almost starved. He looks for work anywhere and finally finds pay — lousy pay, even by low standards — on a dangerous construction site. He picks up the tools right away but soon collapses out of hunger.
Immediately, though, we see this film — as much anger as it displays at this inhuman treatment — has genuine compassion. One of the workers Julio doesn’t even know yet grabs his lunch and gives it to Julio.
The film is actually filled with moments like this, where one character, down-and-out himself, struggling to get food for the next meal, puts self aside and helps another.
Of course, the inverse is also present. There are many taking advantage of another’s desperate circumstances. For example, the construction boss can abuse and underpay the workers because they have to come to work and get whatever payment they can in order to make it to the next day. Even minor protestations are met with severe punishment, and few of these characters have the time and energy to organize and actually protest in any way that’s productive, even if the risks of punishment weren’t a matter of life and death for them and their loved ones.
Day-to-day survival is absolutely the first pressing issue for Julio, but it turns out it’s not the only thing Julio is searching for.
Julio forms a camaraderie with many of his fellow laborers and we learn with those he most trusts that he was once a fisherman in a small village. He didn’t have money there, but he did have a live and, more important to him, a girlfriend, Ligaya Paraiso, played by Hilda Koronel. I was delighted to see Koronel since she makes such an impression as the titular character in Insiang, though here she has a much smaller role, representing something lost as well as hope for the future.
Ligaya, we learn, came to Manila before Julio, lured there by a woman who came to the village promising good jobs for some of the beautiful young women. We are not as naive as Ligaya and her mother, and we know just what this woman is signing these girls up for. Soon the woman writes to tell Ligaya’s mother that Ligaya has ran away and cannot be found. This is when Julio takes it upon himself to enter the claws of the city and seek out his lost paradise. He chases ghosts for months but finally thinks he has some idea of where Ligaya is: the Chua Tek Trading Company on the street named Misericordia, which means mercy.
It turns out that when Julio came to Manila seven months earlier, he had enough money to get by and devote his time to finding Ligaya. Time and robberies, though, drove him to give up on that dream and find ways to rebuild.
This is not a unique story, sadly. As I mentioned earlier, there are dozens of characters shown in the first minutes of the film and we could easily watch their stories play out. Throughout the film, Julio meets others, including a young man who has found his way into middle-class comfort as a male prostitute.
Julio dabbles in this as well (and thus a connection to Midnight Cowboy, the film I watched last week because it is was released by Criterion just before this one, is all the more strong). Again, Julio’s not the only one in the film to go this route. We learn of many characters who ultimately resort to prostitution in order to make it through the next day. And, like Julio, they are consistently beaten down again and again. This is a dirty village where one of Julio’s friends lived:
A few days later, because it was a shantytown, it is burned down.
The film is a particular slice, even a bit of a parable, of lives in these horrendous conditions. It’s also a protest in and of itself.
Though if you asked I’d tell you I prefer Brocka’s Insiang, I would in the same breath say that you should still dig into Manila in the Claws of Light. Indeed, in these times especially, it contains a vital social message and call to join the struggle.