A painter is afflicted with a disease that eventually paralyzes him. He leaves for the bucolic countryside to paint his last painting before he kills himself. A young woman gets pregnant and leaves her child with her doctor. Painter and young woman meet, they strike an unlikely relationship. Both end up in the hospital. Young woman turns out to be the painter’s mother. Young woman saves the painter from suicide. But there’s a twist here, the woman has been dead for years. The story, written by Katski Flores in her directorial debut, is hardly original. Yet Katski Flores’s initial attempt in filmmaking is laudable with a bounty of beautiful imagery, crisp editing, and impressive performances from Ron Capinding as James Masino, Glaiza De Castro as Emma Vaszquez, and John Lloyd Cruz in a brief yet effective role as an actor studying the role of an artist.
The art of painting plays a central and integrative role in Still Life. The title draws a connection between the film and the painting genre of still life. The still life has a long history in art starting from the Dutch stilleven where the term originated around 1650. Still life (plural “still lifes”) refers to painted flowers, fruit, vases, wine, bread, food, and other inanimate objects. Still life is also referred to as nature morte in French, which came into popular use in the 19th century as a variation of the term peinture des choses inanimees (painting of inanimate objects). (Mariam 4) In Italian it is natura morta while in Spanish it is called naturaleza muerta and bodegon.
The lead character, James Masino (Ron Capinding), is a painter and the film dwells on the psyche of an artist, how he thinks about art, his art making process, and the role of art in his life – much like a portrait of a young man as an artist. Landscapes and seascapes also abound in Katski Flores’s film with beautifully shot scenes on location in Guinyangan, Quezon and Jala-Jala, Rizal.
The title of the film, Still Life, operates on several levels in this film. It alludes to the impending immobility (the Dutch term stilleven, according to Mariam, also means “nature in repose or immobile”) of James’s body due to Guillain-Barré syndrome, a debilitating disease that will eventually paralyze his body, spelling the end of his painting career. James dances with death and grapples with suicide, reminiscent of memento mori, reminders of death and mortality, as seen in countless still life paintings. Vanitas, another term associated with still life, which according to Patrick Flores, is used to refer to still life works which contemplate the transience of life through the iconography of hourglasses, extinguished candles, soap bubbles, and skulls. (22) James is in transition, moving places from the city to the island, preparing to take his own life, eventually finding a second life after art. Emma as well, is in a transient state, as we shall discover at the end of the film.
The film is replete with images of still life. James’s paintings are still life, albeit of the unconventional type, not filled with flowers or fruits, but instead of a broken red stiletto, a dinner table with wine and left-over food, an empty swing in motion, a broken eyeglasses, a bench with a floating trench coat – all devoid of life, as Emma noticed. Katski Flores also paints her own still lifes in scenes such as an empty chair, a drift wood, a bowl of flowers in the garden, and bougainvilleas in the patio. She also literally transforms some scenes into paintings as seen from the eyes of James.
Still life can also allude to the life of James as it is put on hold by his disease, the end of life as he knows it. It can also refer to his life on a stand-still – when Emma comes into his life, all the moments that James and Emma spent together all occurred in just a matter of a few earthly hours, while James bleeds from his attempted suicide, the hours are stilled.
Sadly, the film reinforces some conventional and questionable notions about art – an artist as a solitary figure, an artist as a wretched angst-filled soul, an artist space as a room-of-one’s one, and an artist as a middle-class male. The film is also unabashedly conservative with its preachy pro-life diatribes on suicide and abortion. Emma’s role is also conventional as a woman, taking care of the house, preparing the food, doing the laundry, and washing the dishes. Still Life also suffers from excess – the repetitive piano score was haunting at first but eventually becomes unbearable; the dialogue is uneven, sometimes witty but turns cheesy at some point; and the symbolisms were contrived and the twist in the plot was predictable.
In spite these excesses, Still Life’s cinematography and visual design is exceptional for its sweeping panorama of nature in its landscapes and seascapes capturing its transitory nature with almost painterly quality, the attention to details in indoor spaces with almost still life property, transforming the frames into hand-painted paintings and the evocative use chiaroscuro – the play of shadows and light – to create mood. Brian Uhing’s paintings and Christina Dy’s sketches are also vital component to the over-all theme of the film. When Mariam wrote, “As a critic and art historian once so aptly remarked, what could be better explain the phrase “devouring with the eyes” than a still life?” she could be referring to Flores’s Still Life as it is literally a feast for the eyes ready to be devoured.
Glaiza De Castro gives an impressive performance as Emma, the young care-free woman. She emanates an inner beauty on screen and is unpretentious in her role. But it is Ron Capinding’s portrayal of James, in his first on screen performance, who stands out in the film as he turns in an understated yet nuanced performance that shifts from haughty to endearing, desperate to hopeful, and from confusion to enlightenment. Capinding’s restraint and roughness as an actor is a contrapunto to the natural joie de vivre and exuberance of De Castro. In the end, the love between James and Emma becomes palpable, yet both De Castro and Capinding effectively evinced love without the romantic entanglements and sensual frills.
Ultimately, as Still Life shows, there is still life for James even after art.
Flores, Patrick. “The Tradition of ‘Still’ Life: Objects, Faces, and Structures as Culture.” Perspectives on the Vargas Museum Collection: An Art Historical and Museological Approach. Quezon City: University of the Philippines Department of Art Studies, Jorge Vargas Museum and Filipiniana Research Center, 1998.
Mariam, Mariu. Still Life. Madrid: Aldeasa, 2001.