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'Voices' quietly speaks up for hope

Alessandra de Rossi's tenacious heroine infuses a modest, sentimental film with everyday heroism.

October 10, 2003|Kevin Thomas | Times Staff Writer

Gil M. Portes' "Small Voices" is a gentle film that is nonetheless clear-eyed about life's harsh realities. Its Garden of Eden-like setting in a rural area of the Philippines is deceptive, for the inhabitants of the village of Malawig, mainly farmers, are caught up in a cycle of poverty. As one weary wife and mother of eight remarks, "Only the rich can afford to dream." The idealistic new teacher at the village's ramshackle elementary school counters that "every child has the right to dream."

"Small Voices" is a leisurely, understated film reminiscent of any number of Japanese counterparts featuring quietly heroic rural teachers. It is easy to label the film as slow, old-fashioned and sentimental, which it certainly is, but it has the tenacity of its heroine, the pretty and intelligent Melinda (Alessandra de Rossi), a recent University of Manila graduate. Melinda is dismayed by the apathy of the principal, Mrs. Pantalan (Dexter Doria), and the two other teachers. The school is meagerly funded, there is a shortage of books and materials, and one burned-out classroom has never been repaired. Parents routinely take their children out of classes to help with the harvests and in general place a low priority on education, especially for girls.

Melinda, however, refuses to be overwhelmed by what she's up against in trying to make a difference. She resolves to make the best of her situation, starting with listening to her pupils so they might be inspired to listen to her. When she learns of a district singing competition she is determined that Malawig Elementary will participate.

As the film unfolds, Portes' strengths come into play. Melinda may rightly become dismayed and frustrated by her colleagues, but Portes judges no one, instead allowing us to understand the people of Malawig. And while Portes milks the climactic sequence of the singing competition and events surrounding it for all they're worth, he has been careful to make the point that the thought of the school's entering the competition at all is more important than whether or not it wins. He also cleverly structures his finish for maximum impact.

"Small Voices" emerges as an affecting film that is also quite critical of the resignation that seems to permeate Philippine society, underlined by corruption and violence. Yet by the time the film draws to a close, it suggests that the implacable determination represented by Melinda offers the possibility that an individual can effect at least a modicum of change, and that such an effort, no matter how modest, is reason for hope.


'Small Voices'

MPAA rating: Unrated

Times guidelines: Some scenes may be too intense for youngsters

Alessandra de Rossi...Melinda Santiago

Dexter Doria...Mrs. Pantalan

Gina Alajar...Chayong

Bryan Homecillo...Popoy

Pierro Rodriguez...Obet

A Sky Island Films release. Director Gil M. Portes. Producers Gil M. Portes, Ray Cuerdo. Executive producers Cresencio Bendijo, Marissa Dames, Isabel Chapman. Screenplay Gil M. Portes, Adolfo B. Alix Jr. and Senedy H. Que. Cinematographer Ely Cruz. Editor George Jarlego. Music and theme song Joy Marfil. Art director Arthur Nicdao. In Tagalog, with English subtitles.

Exclusively at the Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869; Playhouse 7, Pasadena, (626) 844-6500; and the Town Center 5, 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino, (818) 981-9811.

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