The famed novels of Dr. Jose Rizal—Noli Me Tangere (Noli) and El Filibusterismo) (Fili)—have been cultural and political touchstones in forging the Filipino identity. Rizal and his works, including their cores of patriotism and resistance against oppression, have been integrated into the country’s education system. But these works’ luster is under threat as the endless accumulation of responsibilities and dilemmas in our modern society overtakes their importance in the youth’s consciousness.
This may have been the underlying crux of one of 2022’s most acclaimed television series, GMA Network’s Maria Clara at Ibarra, which aired its finale last February 24. The story is a portal fantasy about a young nursing student, Maria Clara “Klay” Infantes (Barbie Forteza)—her name inspired by the iconic female lead in Noli—who gets sucked into the world of Rizal’s memorable novels. What transpires is a journey that takes her into a world with the shining veneer of Rizal’s original novels but without the bite and grit that made them classics in the first place.
The ensemble cast of Maria Clara at Ibarra showed immense passion through embodying the uniqueness of the project they were involved in. The top-billed cast member and lead, Forteza, possessed a radiant on-screen presence that provided expressiveness, cheekiness, and naïveté that captured the nuances of Klay, a working student and Filipina living through the struggles of modern-day neoliberalism. Dennis Trillo’s titular Crisostomo Ibarra similarly works as a gentleman who cares for the masses’ plight and whose idealism initially captures the heart of Klay.
However, their respective love interests left a lot to be desired. Julie Anne San Jose’s ethereal energy makes her a natural fit to portray Rizal’s Maria Clara, and her scenes with Forteza were series highlights—but where her performance falters is her lack of chemistry with Trillo’s Ibarra, which significantly cripples the sentimentality in adapting key scenes from Rizal’s novels. Meanwhile, David Licauco’s Fidel, a series addition from the original text, often felt like a cynical attempt to engage young viewers with a romance subplot for Klay. Licauco’s performance unfortunately didn’t give much justification for this change.
The supporting cast members were similarly a hit-or-miss. The unexpected cast standout was scene-stealer Andrea Torres as Sisa, a morally-gray character of a mother who engaged in corporal punishment but showed unfathomable love for her children. Ces Quesada also brought unexpected depth to the conservative Tiya Isabel, Maria Clara’s stern yet protective aunt, who realized how her ideals have only constrained her niece in her outdated ideals about femininity. However, Juancho Triviño’s Padre Bernardo Salvi did not deliver the menace appropriate for such a despicable character, and Rocco Nacino failed to provide Elias the gravitas his character utterly deserved.
If there is one thing that the production could be commended for, it is their attention to detail. The sets were impeccably designed and the costumes were period-accurate. Additionally, the series was filmed in various locations around the Philippines, such as in Ilocos Norte, Batangas, and Pampanga, engaging the audience and keeping them immersed throughout its 105-episode run.
The sweeping cinematography and restrained editing showed a sanitized version of the Spanish colonial era that may be more to the palate of the viewers, but it neutered the subversiveness of its source material. In flashback sequences, the series employed quick cuts paired with sudden bursts of light that would feel appropriate in a true crime documentary, which has no business being in an elegantly-produced period drama. With this series, all that glitters isn’t gold as the filmmaking was often breathtaking but felt surface-level.
Awit ni Maria Clara
Stemming from two novels that spotlight the struggles of the marginalized, Maria Clara at Ibarra focuses on how women and children were oppressed during the time. From the get-go, the series took jabs at beliefs and notions that belittled women.
This is evident in the pilot week where international actress Chai Fonacier’s Lucia, a supporting character that was left in the dust, was publicly shamed by Tirso Cruz III’s Padre Damaso as he mistook her for a prostitute. While heavy-handed, this was elevated by Fonacier’s layered depiction of an oppressed woman associated with the rebels, Cruz’s no-holds-barred portrayal of an oppressor, and the shock and bewilderment of Forteza’s reactions.
This is subsequently paired by an outburst from Klay after Ibarra and his friends spewed sexist remarks about women. Klay mentioned women becoming professionals in the modern world being great features of how current society treats women, conveniently leaving off issues of gender pay gap or workplace discrimination. She excitedly remarked upon the progress of women by glorifying the two women presidents we have had so far, Cory Aquino and Gloria Arroyo. This, on the surface, is well-intentioned, until we are reminded of how Aquino’s time in office was packed with human rights abuses by the paramilitary, and how Arroyo’s administration is infamous for various corruption cases and the Hello, Garci scandal. As a result, the show becomes filled to the brim with talking points that reek of blind feminine pride that conveniently forgets the intersectional nature of women’s struggles.
Encompassed in this thematic thread is Sisa, whose love for her children has driven her insane, showing a darker aspect of the struggles that women face in society. This was the series at its highest peak—one that unfortunately never comes close to reaching again.
After Sisa’s unfortunate turn into madness, Klay stays in Maria Clara’s household and teaches her the modern-day ideals of womanhood. While noble and justified, the framing provided problematic consequences: a modern woman from our time, Klay, becomes necessary so that Maria Clara may come into her own. This robs Maria Clara of the agency needed for her to become an active participant in her story and circumstances.
It is at this point that the underlying issue with the series becomes clear: they were so focused on delivering big individual moments to the characters that the buildup of the story was handled with much less care. The result is often a brilliantly-delivered monologue that sadly, rings hollow. Despite its themes of breaking free from oppression, the series ironically becomes a slave to the soap opera format, which has conventions that ultimately box the sheer ambition of the series’ premise.
‘Matuto sa nakaraan’
Even with a hyped-up one-week extension, the series still feels like it breezed through the events of Fili, with inexplicably no rhyme nor reason other than giving Klay her enlightened savior moment. This portion’s cast addition of Khalil Ramos as Basilio did not live up to how the leads of Noli were realized. The tragedy of Kim de Leon’s Isagani and Julia Pascual’s Paulita Gomez–despite a magnetic performance from the former–was not given enough time to become a love story the audience would root for. In fact, due to a hodgepodge of story threads in the series’ Fili portion, none of them were given room to naturally develop. The latter part of the series then finds itself wrapped up with all the metatextual details of Rizal’s Fili–all delivered in obvious and disengaging exposition.
Despite these flaws, Maria Clara at Ibarra is a massive leap toward rediscovering our heritage and reconciling our progressive sensibilities with historical-based literature. Its numerous accolades for its unique premise and cultural impact are nothing short of deserved, and the technical feat and amount of effort put into the project are attributes that should be replicated in the local television scene in the future. By retelling this story in a divisive political climate, the series has definitely opened the eyes of avid viewers to how things were and how they tragically remain the same.