9 August 2009 | michael_sturza
Two Strangers in Misfortune
Joseph Nobile's "Closer To Home" is a sprawling drama, compactly told. The director begins by performing a service: he shows how Filipino working people, both urban and rural, really live. Vulnerable and preyed upon, their insecure lives lead them to take desperate risks in the hope of improvement. Dalisay, (Madeline Ortaliz) a pretty, upright, determined young woman who works in a textile factory in the city, but whose family owns a tiny sharecropper's rice paddy in the countryside, seeks to emigrate to America. When a man tells a New York agency he is willing to marry her, based only on her photo, she tells her parents she has an offer of a job as a nanny. As her younger sister needs an operation, and a cousin already lives in New York, her father reluctantly pledges his farm and two water buffalo to the local loan shark to raise the bribe she needs to get her travel papers. The portrayals of her illiterate parents as dignified and personable reinforce the monstrousness of their situation. These are people you would be happy to have to dinner.
The American man is Dean, a forty-ish jaded veteran of the Merchant Marine whose inheritance, the 3-story walk-up tenement building where he lives, is entangled with his embittered sister and petty merchant cousin. Working as a taxi driver, Dean has the air of a loser who might once have had a happier outlook that he now wants to get back. Aware of his own limitations, he has arrived at an uneasy compromise between cynicism and optimism which leads him to posture as more savvy than he is. John Michael Bolger's portrayal of a decent working class guy whom life continually trips up is nuanced and affecting. Despite his flaws you root for him.
In New York the two misfortunate strangers, each seeking to use the other, awkwardly try to begin a long-term relationship, something neither has ever known. Where one might expect their efforts to immediately collapse, they surprisingly don't. Dean leans over backward to make his fiancée feel comfortable, but his own lack of culture and perspective more often than not leaves him flatfooted. "Wait," he tells her on her first night as she falls asleep over the expensive meal he has prepared, "I have Champangne. I think it's French!" He promises to bring her family to the wedding but can't currently afford it. Since she will not sleep with him until they are married he chivalrously takes to sleeping on the couch over her objections. They even have a fun outing, and his open-hearted Uncle Ralph, who lives upstairs, does his best to make Dalisay feel welcome. For her part, Dalisay takes up domestic duties, and reconnects with her more worldly cousin. Slowly, however, her family's need for money and his family's quarrels take their toll, and Dean begins to crumble though he tries, fumblingly, to hold it together. The buildup to the crisis happens gradually so that when it comes it resonates powerfully for having been understated all along.
The differing expectations of the would-be spouses is smartly underscored by condensing Dalisay's journey from the aqueous beauty of the rural Philippines directly to a moving windshield under a Brooklyn elevated subway track, with only a brief stop at JFK airport in between. The contrast speaks volumes, not only about the characters, but also the relative class nature of the two societies. Many of the film's scenes are relatively short, economical and informative, and although the technique risks seeming choppy at times it drives the story forward at a steady pace. The film is enhanced by the strong but conflicting motivations of their various relatives. These provide minor sub-plots that are integral to the main story, and add to its punch. By the end of the film the multiple strands in the story arc have been tied up with a satisfying, and surprising, emotional kick.
© Michael Sturza July 16, 2009