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Breaking the Spell: the Ibong Adarna

There is a film that should haunt us after its restoration. But first, the question: why restore the old film called Ibong Adarna?

In 1941, LVN released the film called Ibong Adarna. On screen credits are given to two directors or pioneers: Vicente Salumbides for the story and direction and Manuel Conde for technical direction. Between the two geniuses are histories of cinema blurred by years of war and neglect.

Remastered by the ABS-CBN, Ibong Adarna sings again and its plumage changes in enchanting colors. It joins the five or six – give and take their present physical forms – films made before the war.

It was in 1941 when Ibong Adarna was first released. There are no clear dates as to when it was premiered. Suffice it to say that it was shown months before the three long and sad years of World War II came to the land. It was the film that would first feel the demarcation between the pre- and post-War, a cluster of periods that would scar the country and its arts.

The said film is based on a “corrido,” a narrative poetry or metrical romance. The literature tells of the story of three sons – all princes. They are: Don Pedro, Don Diego, and Don Juan. As happens in this kind of tale, the prime cause for the adventure to happen is an affliction: the Kind becomes ill. He grows weaker every day and the doctor tells everyone that there is only one cure for the king’s illness and that is the song of an enchanted bird, the Ibong Adarna. The bird must be captured and be made to sing before the king. The mythical bird has a voice that can heal.

It is not of course easy to catch the bird because it is enchanted. The song that could heal is also the same sound that could kill, or at least turn those who hear it into stone.

The eldest goes first. On his way to Mt Tabor, he encounters an old man with diseased who asks for food. Don Pedro is mean and does not give the old man anything. When he reaches the peak of the mountain where the tree with silver leaves grows, he waits for the bird. The bird does come and starts to sing. The prince hears the sweetest melody and he soon falls asleep. Under the tree, the excrement of the bird falls upon him and he is soon transformed into a stone – a special effect that is still startling up to this day given the limited technology of those years.

When the eldest son fails to return, the second, Don Diego sets out to hunt for the bird. He goes through the same pattern of adventure. Failing the test, he is turned also into a stone.

With the second son not coming back, the youngest tries his luck in catching the enchanted bird. Don Juan also meets the old man but instead of refusing the latter food, the young prince shares with him his food supply.

We all know what happens in this kind of tale: Don Juan does not only catch the bird; he also saves his two brothers.

What could have been the end of the story is really the beginning of more stories about women fighting for their men, brothers out to betray brothers, and kings with more tasks to be done because life is hard and there is no such thing as free meal in this town.

As the plot gets convoluted, the bird disappears from the narrative. But the storytelling has to end. In the end, the three brothers are reunited and they all have the women fit to be their partner for life.

When the film was screened in Naga City as part of the Cinema Rehiyon, a gathering of filmmakers from different parts of the country, Ibong Adarna brought with it all the might of the contradictions of our artistic heritage. The mostly young audience, for example, it seemed, never questioned the simplistic account of betrayal and love. As the youngest prince struggles with who to choose as his wife, the viewers are caught up in a tale of romance now shrunk to the size of handsome boy meets an old flame and an account that could be best summed up as a love triangle.

Interesting, however, is another fact: Ibong Adarna has ceased to be merely a film for entertainment and is now an artefact of who we are as a nation of film viewers and film makers.

What must have been the reaction of the Filipino viewers in the 1940s as they witnessed human forms vanish and in their place stones were created?

How did the critics respond to Ibong Adarna the film? Were they hot on symbols then?

In the film, the mountain where the Ibong Adarna lives is called Mt. Tabor, a name more associated with the biblical mound of Transfiguration.

There is a scene in the film where the enchanted princess makes an entrance as a powerful “empress” in order to disrupt the wedding of her man to another woman. Apparently, Don Juan, the prince with a noble heart is not noble at all. He forgets the princess who saved his life many times over. Not even the physical presence of the woman who loved him and sacrificed much for him could break the spell of a regular love. It takes a performance conjured by Princess Maria, the woman with magical powers, to finally wake Don up from a deep forgetfulness.

That performance meant to aid the memories of Don Juan is a dance by two phantasms: a woman and a woman both black. In the dance, the woman whips the man as she gradually enumerates the events that perhaps could remind the prince that he once was in another kingdom, and there loved this woman now fighting for that love.

Captured on screen, Ibong Adarna seems to tell us that the metaphor of magic we attribute to love and passion can only be surmounted by another form of magic, one that straddles the line between make-believe and mysticism. Woe to a woman whose rival is a being that can create visual tricks to display an argument. Woe to a man, to a prince who can surmount the impossible tasks of finding an enchanted bird whose song can kill and heal and yet suffer under the illusion manufactured by a woman in love.

There are more things to discover in a film that, on the surface, is a tale of hermits and giants, royalties beholden to birds. Do not ignore Don Juan as played by Fred Cortez, he with the most ethereal face more Hollywood machinery than nationalist imagination. Or, of an audience that, after many years, still worship at the shrine of a male allure different from what we see each day on street and in ourselves.

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