There is a compelling case to be made that Mario O’Hara’s Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos is the best Filipino film ever made. This layered psychological movie provokes our moral intuitions that have been conditioned by our collective memory and understanding of the Japanese Occupation, and it implicates the audience by casting doubt on our ability to arbitrate between good and evil. In Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos, O’Hara demonstrates his superior talent for deploying character, plot and conflict to make profound statements about the consequences, both intended and unintended, of war.
The central dilemma lies in the love triangle between the destitute barrio girl Rosario (Nora Aunor), her lover and Filipino guerilla fighter Crispin (Bembol Roco) and the half-Filipino, half-Japanese soldier Masugi (Christopher de Leon). I don’t know if O’Hara intended it, but the movie’s title can also be seen as a play on words – the word taong can be translated in two ways, and the title can be interpreted as Three Godless Years or Three Godless People. While the former is the official title of the film, the latter is still apt because of the three characters’ nebulous personal moralities.
The movie starts off with Crispin bidding Rosario goodbye as he leaves to fight in the war. While he is off fighting the Japanese, a lost Masugi stumbles into Rosario’s home and gets drunk on her family’s lambanog. In the height of his inebriation, he rapes Rosario in their basement. This sequence of events evokes the trauma of World War II, of the numerous women that were raped and abused by the invading soldiers just as their husbands and brothers were off fighting in the war. The minute Masugi enters their house, it is easy to foretell that things will end in tragedy. This scene is already something seared in our memories, O’Hara is merely conjuring it.
When Masugi returns a few days later to apologize to Rosario and her family, we instinctively are appalled by the gall of this monster to reenter the life of his victim. We have been taught us to unconditionally condemn perpetrators of sexual violence, especially during times of war. And of course I agree: rape is utterly inexcusable.
But what happens when the victim decides to forgive her aggressor? Should we be quick to judge her decision to grant the redemption that only she can provide?
Rosario initially rejects Masugi despite his romantic advances that turn out to be sincere and earnest. She rejects the advice of her family to forgive him after he gifts them with a bounty of rice and canned goods. Her dignity can not be bought, and she will not be wooed by someone who has desecrated her humanity. But then, as we soon learn, she gets pregnant with his child. And when Masugi’s closest confidante, the Spanish doctor Francis (Peque Gallaga), intimately tells her his life story and why he is someone worth loving, she changes her mind and learns to love and accept him anyway.
Because of the racial politics of World War 2, what makes this relationship detestable is the fact that Masugi is Japanese, which makes him far worse than any ordinary rapist. And even though she initially rejected all his gifts, Rosario gets ostracized from her community anyway because of the protection Masugi gives to her and her family in order to win her heart. She gets labelled as a “collaborator”, a powerful signifier of treason of the highest order. The fact that she chose to bear his child and marry him only aggravated the situation further, cementing her position in the village as a traitor.
It is here that O’Hara reverses our expectations on who the real heroes of the story are. With the war raging in the background, the guerrilla fighters symbolize the nationalist resistance that we have come to assume as the people on the “right” side of the war. They’re the protecters of the otherwise defenseless barrios in the countryside.
But curiously, we never see them do the actual defending. The entire war happens off-screen, and we only see them return to the village after their skirmishes. Crispin’s soliloquy early in the film on the horrors he had witnessed on the battlefield was precisely that — words that did not translate to images for us to consume. What we do see, however, is how quickly they turned against a member of their community the moment she was baselessly castigated for her supposed betrayal. This monstrous effervescence of the townspeople and the guerrillas that culminated in a ritualistic assault shows the pitfalls to the almost religious adherence that people have to their communal identities. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that their irruption happened in a church, the structure that embodied their village’s civic spirit.
And so the tables are turned — the monster is humanized and the dark side of the villagers are brought to the surface. The perversion of the bucolic communities living in pastoral hamlets is hardly anything new. From our very own folklore about creatures such as the manananggal and the movies that have projected these beasts such as the early Shake, Rattle and Roll films, we have always been slightly fearful of the possible existence of a wicked underside in these otherwise peaceful locales. Perhaps it is our urbanity that makes us cynical about these Edens and the supposedly idyllic lives therein. What O’Hara brings forth is a horror derived from the instability of a chaotic wartime environment, villagers who become unhinged because of their perceived abandonment by their two benevolent masters, the Americans and God.
But in the absence of any order, it is the love between Masugi and Rosario that prevents them from being dislocated and swallowed by the vicissitudes of strife. There is a climactic point in the movie when Rosario contemplates on doing a horrific act in order to correct the wrong that Masugi did to her. But her decision not to push through with it and embrace the new life she finds herself in is perhaps the purest form of humaneness in a brutal, godless world. Her choice to forgive Masugi transcends the evil of war. And because of that, neither the villagers nor the audience is in any position to condemn her for choosing to love.
Putting the movie in a historical context, when the Anti-Marcos protracted people’s revolution was happening in the provinces, there was a certain romanticization of the rural. O’Hara’s portrayal of this barrio both subverts the idealized imagination of the barrio and condemns the moral superiority that people who worship and come from these places usually engender.
What makes Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos a classic is the way O’Hara alters the contours of the moral landscape he sculpts. Yes, one might still take offense at the way he excuses Masugi’s rape by presenting a more insidious and arguably more malicious form of evil, but the manner in which he brings forth these questions on dignity and self-worth is anything but glib. Instead, O’Hara plays with our emotions, toying with our feelings of sympathy, compassion and self-righteousness without ever being sanctimonious, an achievement that to my mind still remains unsurpassed.