A Film a Week - Ode to Nothing / Oda sa wala

Death is certainly one of the main points of Dwein Baltazar's Ode to Nothing, which makes it by definition a morbid movie. Luckily, Baltazar's points are somewhere else other than in death-obsessed individuals and society, so death here enters the familiar and always welcome territory of absurd humour. The film had its world premiere at home, at QCinema International Film Festival, before internationally premiering in the competition of Karlovy Vary and heading to the North American premiere at Fantasia in Montreal.

It seems that our leading lady Sonya (played by Marietta Subong, alias Pokwang, a huge TV star in Philippines) just waits for the death to take her in her home above the funeral parlour where she works. The business is slow and even when a potential clients come, they are usually trying to bargain. Other than that, Sonya co-exists in silence with her father Rudy (Joonee Gamboa) and tries to sweet-talk the loan shark Theodor (Dido de la Paz) into extending her credit line, hoping that the business will pick up. The mood Baltazar sets is conveniently drab and devoid of colour in a slow-moving pace, with sudden visits of the local taho vendor Elmer (Anthony Falcon, the star of the Baltazars previous films Gusto Kita with All My Hypothalamus and Mamay Umeng) being the only ones to bring some colour in Sonya's life.

Her luck might change with a Jane Doe dead body being delivered to her shop one appropriately rainy night. Since it remains unclaimed, Sonya decides to dress it up and adopt it as her personal talisman of sorts, hoping that the dead will bring more dead, which will bring more money and drive Theodor away. She even talks to the body and sort of prays to it for help. It seems that the solution works for a moment, at least for Sonya and Rudy internally, as they start to communicate to each other and even to the outside world. But when the lack of financial gain meets up with Theodor's exponentially growing greed, Sonya is being pushed well over the edge of reason...

Baltazar's films feature uncommunicative characters, with a lot of internalized emotion and conflicts, so Ode to Nothing is no exception to that. It certainly works as a social commentary of sorts about Filipino way of life, especially in quiet suburbs and provincial towns where the slowly decaying of the setting is confronted by the pressure of financial and other hardships of the ever-faster world of power, influence and capital.

In that sense, Baltazar does good to keep his pace down and to use the colours of the interior and exterior and the architectural structures as his means of expression. The boxy 4:3 cinematography with cropped corners handled by Neil Daza serves the purpose well and the chiaroscuro play with natural colours in dimmed lighting sometimes feels like poetry on certain level, especially combined with the meditative feeling it evokes insisting on minutiae of the daily life.

The acting is flawless throughout and it is completely adequate to tell an endearingly bizarre story of death, life and superstition which we should take at face value. That is not that hard to do since Ode to Nothing never ceases to hold its viewers in a firm grip. The only problem with it is that we might want a bit more of this strange and unique atmosphere and the brisk format of 90 minutes seems a bit too tight.

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