Finding Neo-realism in the Film Masahista (The Masseuse)

I don’t think one earns respect as a film reviewer by appearing to be arrogantly dismissive and irresponsible with assertions. I always thought that reviewing films demands no less than production of knowledge.

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Masahista (The Masseuse)
2005, Gee Entertainment and Centerstage
Director: Brilliante Mendoza
Cast: Jaclyn Jose, Alan Paule, Coco Martin

This is not a full-blown film review, but simply a reaction to Jay Weissberg’s views published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer (Oct. 19, 2005, p. A30). After having seen the film Masahista, I found Weissberg’s opinion to be unsubstantiated, whimsical and flippant.

I don’t think one earns respect as a film reviewer by appearing to be arrogantly dismissive and irresponsible with assertions. I always thought that reviewing films demands no less than production of knowledge. My expectation was thwarted since Weissberg’s case proves to be otherwise (i.e., other than wise).

I disagree with his nitpicking because films should be evaluated as a final product. The passing of judgment should not be on bits and parts per se, but on how they were affectively assembled together by the filmmaker. Of Masahista, Weissberg writes, “… constant time shifts are clumsily handled, and the dramatic arch, meant to circle around itself, ends up going nowhere”. Well, he has his opinions and I have mine, but for purposes of analysis, I wonder if we saw the same film. I cannot identify with his sweeping claims.

Weissberg’s “time shifts” were to me the different threads of visual narrative interwoven by careful editing to reach denouement. There were hardly any “time shifts” as flashbacks or preludes, no telling of the story before the current narration. The filmmaker simply employed conventional technique of interweaving two contemporary events. This is no clumsiness but rather a reliance on the safe side of story-telling on the part of the director, Brilliante Mendoza. Visually, Mendoza was in fact standard rather then avant garde.

Relationships appear as the dominant theme of the film, though in varied textures, particularly the masseur-patron and the son-father nexus within a dysfunctional family setting. It is the latter however that is more poignant and therefore telling. The strength and vulnerability of the central character, the young masseur Iliac (Coco Martin), were slowly unfolded. And viewers are informed that Iliac grew up and earned for his family as a whore-masseur after his father abandoned them. If the film was not configured around this issue of abandonment, I doubt it deserves serious consideration from award-giving bodies and discriminating audience. Without this problematique, Masahista would have been just any cheap “sexploitation” flick.

The brothel where Iliac works sells sex to homosexuals. Here the jaded and hardened masseurs are extra-aggressive in hustling willing patrons. The negotiation between veteran masseurs and patrons on the surface appears to be playful if not coquettish, but really brutally commercial underneath. And the young Iliac, who is not naïve to this reality, seduces his patron by employing the charm of his seeming innocence. He skillfully uses innocence in his business proposition. He is well-informed of the iron law of the flesh market.

If lousy fathers and stingy patrons are not trustworthy at all, what life choices do a whore-son has? Can someone like Iliac still get on with his personal journey to self integration? In a predicament like his, do notions of trajectory, destiny and entelechy make sense? At least, the film showed Iliac breaking down when he discovered his father’s mementos – proof that his father originally loved them as a family. With this touching scene, however, no definitive closure was offered since the questions earlier posed loom in the horizon of the film’s much-deserved interpretation. Valiant and prescient reviewers seldom shirk in proposing answers, though tentative they may be.

There are many aspects to reckon with in reviewing films, that is why the reviewer’s keen selectivity is always pivotal. The elements that constitute the film no doubt are indispensable in fashioning respectable reviews. I submit, however, that awareness of the hermeneutic tools is no less important. No self-respecting film reviewer can simply be nonchalant in view of this knowledge. From what cinematic construct his review of Masahista emanated from, Weissberg was not interested to inform his readers. This to me is no mere lapse of judgment but an uncalled for display of a writer’s irresponsibility, whimsicality and flippancy.

It would have been insightful to locate Masahista within the compass of director Lino Brocka’s neo-realism in Philippine cinema because it has neo-realist marks. No compromise was made just to subdue starking grit of the locale (i.e., the surfacing of archaic norms, use of gut-level language and biting ironies of the everyday life). Not merely narrating “what is,” neo-realism accentuated “what really is” in cinematic story-telling. The cinematic eye probes closely like a microscope than a telescope, so to speak. The neo-realist eye captures life’s banalities but blows them up into shocking proportion. By revealing the irrationality of the taken-for-granted world, neo-realism surprises as it horrifies. Yet it is also capable of evoking understanding and compassion as any established genre of art. (

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