Review: Jerrold Tarog's SANA DATI (IF ONLY) is an Affecting Romantic Film for Failed Romantics

Jerrold Tarog has been exposing the hard truths behind the Philippines' greatest preoccupations, politics and family. Through characters whose jobs are related to cameras, Tarog destroys myths that have misled Filipinos into a distorted sense of comfort. In Confessional (2007), a documentary filmmaker accidentally stumbles upon a corrupt mayor. The mayor then confesses all his sins on video, lecturing the filmmaker of the fallacy of the Philippines so-called nationhood. In Mangatyanan (The Blood Trail, 2009), an awarded photographer struggles with the nagging influence of her father, who is also an esteemed photographer. In her attempt to take pictures of a rare ritual of a dying tribe, she learns to accept the sins her father has committed against her which effectively ripped their family apart.

Tarog caps his Camera Trilogy with Sana Dati (If Only). Love, probably the most potent diversion for Filipinos, is Tarog's target. With an appetite for movies that extol the triumph of love and songs that glorify the sacrifices for true love, Filipinos have found the perfect escape for their everyday troubles. Amidst enduring concerns about the state of the nation and the needs of the family, love, corny as it sounds, will keep us alive. However, the love that is celebrated by Filipinos is one that has been defined by winners, by those who have found their happy endings, by those who have lived or died intoxicated by romance's distinct pleasures. Love, in the form that most the nation appreciates it, is nothing more than a hallucinogenic drug.

The cameraman in Sana Dati is Dennis (Paulo Avelino), a novice wedding videographer serendipitously hired to cover the wedding of Andrea (Lovi Poe), the last love of his older brother Andrew (Benjamin Alves). Andrea wed Robert (TJ Trinidad), a failed politician-turned-businessman she met during an election campaign. Through Andrea, Dennis finally understands the reason behind his brother's sudden decision to leave their family. Through Dennis, Andrea discovers another way to relive the perfect love that was abruptly terminated by fate's cruelty.

Love has always been defined by winners. The greatest lovers are those who lived content with it or died inspired by it. Sana Dati is not a film about winners. It is not about the fictional poet, named after Spanish director Julio Medem, who wrote the most beautiful verses about the feeling of being in love prior to dying. It is not about Andrew, who like fictional Medem, died with a heart overflowing with love. The heart of Sana Dati lies with the losers, the ones we tend to forget when the most intense statements about love have already been declared. It is about Andrea, whose life goes on despite the tragedy of her one true love perishing. It is about Robert, who is about to marry a girl who does not love him. It is about Dennis, who stirs trouble in somebody else's romantic affairs.

Sana Dati, on its surface, is a very affecting romance. Tarog, who not only directed but also wrote, edited, and scored the film, is obviously in control. Although seemingly unburdened by any need to be relevant, Tarog nevertheless experiments with structure, not for the sake of needlessly complicating his story but to inject into the film a certain rhythm that effortlessly enunciates emotions.

Opening with an ingenious proposal by Andrew to Andrea, the film immediately cuts to the day of a wedding. Dennis is introduced, carrying into the hotel various camera equipment he barely knows how to use. He finally arrives in Andrea's room, where he proceeds to interview her, throwing questions about her love for Robert. Andrea directly answers the questions, her eyes avoiding the camera. Dennis does the same for Robert. Robert answers the questions, with his eyes directly upon the camera. Tarog peppers Sana Dati with these details that invite interpretation.

The gestures of his characters are never empty. A cigarette butt absentmindedly thrown by Dennis from the hotel's window lands on Robert's collar. Andrea's wedding vows is swept by the wind, creating a shadow for Robert to be signalled of her presence in the rooftop. Fate, the primary cause for lovers to have their happy endings in many unforgettable romances, is also an active participant here. The only difference is that in Sana Dati, fate intervenes for sobriety from what essentially is an unrealistic perspective on love.

Sana Dati ends in consolation. There are no grand tragedies, except perhaps the tragedy of having to spend a lifetime with someone you still have to learn to love. There are no dignified exclamations about the power of love, except perhaps the proclamation that moving on and settling for are also valid love stories. Tarog gently shatters the myth of love with subtle sentiment. With his completed trilogy, he sends us back to Earth, armed not with illusions and aphrodisiacs but with grounding realities, as can only be seen and recorded through the unbiased lens of a camera.


(Cross-published in Lessons from the School of Inattention.)
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