Film Review: Magnifico

IMAGING GOD IN FILM
Magnifico as a Christ-Figure in Philippine Cinema

SYNOPSIS

Magnifico is a heartrending film about a Filipino boy whose love and sense of mission changed the lives of those around him. Produced in 2003, the film directed by Maryo de los Reyes won at least 25 awards not only in the Philippines but also in international film festivals.

The film opens with the birth of Magnifico (also called Ikoy in the film). It is clearly discernible at the outset that the boy was born in to a rural poor family. His father, Gerry, is a carpenter but does not have regular employment. It was Gerry who christened him Magnifico because he enjoyed watching a magician by that same name. Magnifico’s mother, Edna, augments the family income by stitching embroideries. Their house is a dilapidated hollow-blocks-and-wood structure typical in rural Philippines. They were so impoverished that they could only prepare soup and noodles for the town fiesta. At one point Edna had to pawn her wedding ring so they could have food on their table.

The story actually begins when Magnifico turned nine. His brother, Miong, has just lost his much-needed scholarship from a university in the capital city Manila. This was a heavy blow because Gerry pinned his hopes on Miong to save the family from poverty. His grandmother, Magda, who lives with Magnifico’s family, figured in a serious accident and had to be hospitalized. In the hospital it was discovered that Magda had pancreatic cancer. This was another backbreaking blow because part of Gerry’s meager income would now go to medical expenses. As if these problems were not exasperating enough, Magnifico’ sister Helen had cerebral palsy, which rendered her incapable of self-mobility and comprehensible speech. Burdened by such seemingly insurmountable difficulties, Edna lustily sighed, “life is a never-ending misery”.

But whole throughout the film life proved to be a series of small marvels. When Magnifico heard whispers that his grandmother Magda would soon die and that his family was incapable of shouldering the sky-high burial expenses, he innocently devised a secret plan. Employing the help of his school buddy Carlo, he covertly began constructing a wooden coffin. For materials he asked scrap wood from a local woodcarving shop and borrowed carpentry tools from his neighbors. And together with Carlo, he sold iced water and juice at the town carnival, hoping to collect money enough for his grandmother’s funeral dress, flowers, and tomb. When their two plastic jars emptied, they ended up with 306 pesos (about 4 euros) in their hands. However this was way too low, considering that he needed at least 30,000 pesos (roughly 400 euros).

Yet Magnifico never lost hope. Nor felt bad. He was determined to fulfill his mission even if he had to sell iced water and juice until kingdom come. For aside from toiling for her grandma’s wake, he was also saving for her sister Helen. He promised to bring her to the town carnival so she could have a colored balloon and enjoy the merry-go-round and other fun rides. Since Helen could not walk, Magnifico resolved to use his money to rent a wheelchair from Domeng. On the day Magnifico and Helen would go to the carnival, Magda’s illness worsened. And since his parents had virtually nothing, Magnifico had to part with his 230 pesos to buy the requisite medicines. Armed with less than a hundred pesos in his pockets but with a lot of determination, Magnifico brought Helen to the carnival by carrying her on his back.

The neighbors who saw Magnifico and Helen at the carnival showed them compassion. A guy who used to bully Helen for laughs drove them there. Two feuding neighbors each gave them 100 pesos for tickets to the rides. One ticket controller admitted them without charge, another gave them a huge discount and a vendor gave Helen a free balloon. Magnifico brought Helen around. He showed her the cotton candies, the ice cream, the works. Helen had the time of her life. When Domeng saw Magnifico hauling Helen on his back, he understood why Magnifico wanted to rent his wheelchair. Moved by what he witnessed, Domeng decided to give his wheelchair to Magnifico for free. So he arranged for Magnifico to get the wheelchair from his house.

On his way to Domeng’s house, Magnifico was hit by a car and died instantly. The colorful coffin he built for his grandmother became the chest in which he was buried.

MAGNIFICO AS A CHRIST-FIGURE

Peter Malone defines the Christ-figure in films as “any purely fictional character who resembles Jesus, significantly and substantially”. This does mean that the character has to look like the conventional Jesus in church paintings or be named Jesus. The character does not even have to be Christian nor male nor sinless in order to be a Christ-figure. The Christ-figure is “neither Jesus nor the Christ, but rather a shadow, a faint glimmer or reflection of him”. Thus, for the Christ-figure to be authentic, the film character must mirror Jesus’ life in some way. When the film character’s life or at least some aspects of it make implicit, metaphorical representations of Jesus’ own life and values then he or she may be considered a Christ-figure. Hence, “the Christ-figure is a way of being led back to the Jesus of the Gospels”.

Aside from being the son of a carpenter, the central dynamic of Magnifico’s story runs parallel to a variety of Christ-story elements and situations in the Gospels. The film presents these elements and situations in both symbolic forms and in the day to day life and behavior of Magnifico. The following are some of the scenes wherein we can see Jesus peek through in Magnifico.

a.) Magnifico serves others with love

Magnifico is a film brimming with Christian themes, the most obvious of which is that of selfless love. Magnifico’s love for his grandma Magda, for his parents, for his brother Miong, for his buddy Carlo, and especially for his sister Helen is radically Christian and thus radically different from any experience of love these people have ever experienced from other members of their family and from their neighbors.

Magnifico’s attentiveness to the feelings and needs of his ailing grandmother contrasts against Edna’s bitterness towards Magda. Edna regarded Magda’s illness and impending death as an unnecessary encumbrance to the family. Magnifico, on the other had, wanted to make her grandma’s apparent passing away as dignified and unburdensome as possible. He spent much of his free time making this mission into reality.

Magnifico’s compassion towards Helen contrasts against Makoy’s bullying of the crippled girl. He never felt burdened by Helen even if he had to carry, entertain, protect and feed her often. He labored hard to secure a wheelchair for her and to give her the chance to have a “normal” life and enjoy the carnival.

While doing all these, Magnifico never complained nor had any selfish reasons. All he cared about was the joy he could give to those he loved and to those who needed him the most. Such compassion and selfless desire to be of service to others positively manifests Magnifico’s role as a Christ-figure who came to serve not to be served and to give his life as a ransom for many.

b.) Magnifico makes “miracles” happen

There is a minor character in the film named Ka Doring. She isolated herself from people and lived in the cemetery because she felt more at peace being away from the crowd. She was always begrudging and her face perpetually frowned. Children made fun of her hoarse voice. In turn she would scare them off with threats and curses. Magnifico brought her a bottle of herbal medicine for her soar throat. At first Ka Doring suspected that Magnifico was just one of the kids who wanted to make fun of her so she threw the bottle away. Upon learning this, Magnifico brought her another bottle and this time Ka Doring drank a few gulps. Later on Ka Doring’s sore throat would go away. During the town fiesta, Magnifico also brought Ka Doring noodles cooked by her mother. Magnifico brought about healing in Ka Doring, both in the physical and in the emotional sense. For when her soar throat healed she was not anymore antagonistic towards the children who made fun of her.

Another small miracle made possible by Magnifico concerned Helen’s speech impediment. Edna tried all she could to teach her daughter Helen to say even such simple words as Nanay (mother) but to no avail. There came a point when Edna’s patience was stretched too thin that she ended up hurting Helen physically. On the night when Helen would be brought by Magnifico to the carnival she miraculously began to talk. It was out of sheer joy that Helen began to utter words like “mother” and “carnival”.

The total healing experienced by Ka Doring and the unsurpassable joy experienced by Helen which gave her the impetus to speak implicitly establishes that dimension of Jesus as healer and miracle worker. These two narrative frames dramatically highlights Magnifico as a Christ-figure.

c.) Magnifico inspires forgiveness and reconciliation

Magnifico’s christological identity is exteriorized not only in the small miracles he effected in Ka Doring and Helen but also in bringing about reconciliation between Miong and his girlfriend, between Edna and Magda, and between Tessie and Cristy.

Miong broke his rich girlfriend’s heart when she learned that Miong only wanted to marry her in order to bail out his family from poverty. Magnifico encouraged his elder brother Miong to ask forgiveness from his girlfriend. Miong humbled himself and went to his girlfriend to reconcile with her.

As has been noted above, Edna was always bitter towards Magda. But in the end Edna’s attitude towards her mother-in-law changed radically. It seemed that Edna’s heart suddenly melted when she saw her son carrying Helen on his back without a hint of displeasure or exasperation. The camera focused on Edna’s face and we see tears streaming down her cheek. Then she looked at Magda, and in their eye-to-eye contact it is communicated that now Edna understood the meaning of unconditional love. If her son Magnifico could carry the crippled Helen with love, so must she bear Magda with patience and compassion. That night was the beginning for a new and better relationship between Edna and Magda.

Tessie and Cristy were both jealous of each other. While Tessie was a perennial gambler, Cristy was a helpless rumormonger. They were neighbors but they didn’t talk to each other. In the carnival they each gave Magnifico one hundred pesos. Not conscious of the presence of the other, each waved and smiled at Magnifico and Helen. After which they discovered that the other was just nearby and they soon had eye-to-eye contact. For a brief moment it seemed that their mutual hatred for each other had gone away for the better. It seemed that at last they were initiating a new way of being neighbors.

Except for his brother Miong, it was not a conscious effort on the part of Magnifico to bring warring people to reconcile. Yet it seemed that every contact with Magnifico was life-changing and inspiring. These people were moved to ask pardon, to forgive and reconcile not so much by what Magnifico did as by his manner, his way of being and loving, which formed a luminous evidence to his being a Christ-figure.

d.) Magnifico carries his own cross, dies and brings about redemption

To start building his grandma’s coffin Magnifico and his devoted friend Carlo went to a woodcarving shop and asked its owner for scrap wood. On their way home they carried a long wooden plank on their shoulders which paralleled to that part in the passion story when Simon of Cyrene helped Jesus carry his cross. Whole throughout the movie Magnifico would be seen carrying something – a bottle of herbal medicine and some noodles for Ka Doring, a basin of vegetable for his family’s lunch, plastic jars for iced juice and water, a pouch of money to buy medicines for his grandma Magda, a brush to paint her coffin, and Helen on her back. These were his little crosses. These bespoke of his immense determination to be a person for others. And such involving scenes were essentially Christlike in their execution, content and effect.

The life of Magnifico was cut short. He was on his way to meet Domeng to get the wheelchair for his paralyzed sister when a vehicle hit him. He died just like that. He must have been too excited to see Domeng on the other side of the road that he failed to notice the speedy cars. Up to his last breath Magnifico was always on the move to be of service to others. Symbolically his death poignantly conveys that, like Christ, he was willing to lay down his life for others. It was a kind of poetic justice – his death empowered others to new life.

This new life began for the family he left behind. Everyone who knew him attended his funeral. It was such a sad moment. The burial donations the family received totaled 31,105 pesos. When he was still alive Magnifico hoped to raise as much as 30,000 pesos. Ironically, this was to be accomplished in his death. Because of it Edna was able to redeem the wedding ring she pawned. And because of it they had something to restart on financially. Hence, the money became a metaphor of redemption for his family.

One recurring symbol used throughout the film was the Rubik’s cube which Gerry tried to solve for at least a year. His failure to solve it symbolized his family’s lack of accomplishment in delivering themselves out of poverty, despair and misery. After one problem piled after another Gerry could not bear it any longer and threw the Rubik’s cube out of his sight. After Magnifico’s death, Gerry discovered that Magnifico had solved the Rubik’s cube, putting everything in its proper place. This was so symbolic of what Magnifico did for the people around him – he united his family, reconciled feuding neighbors, brought about healing to the sick, gave joy to the handicapped -  in short putting their lives and their relationships in their proper place. Thus, in effect Magnifico became the Good Shepherd who died so that others may have the fullness of life.

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