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Monday, May 25, 2009

Intertextuality, Bricolage, and a Sense of the Fragmentary in "La Visa Loca"

Intertextuality, Bricolage, and a Sense of the Fragmentary in La Visa Loca

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La Visa Loca is a tragicomical 2005 film spun around the life of “Jess Huson” (Robin Padilla), a commercial limousine driver and certified nursing aide who gets into a series of misadventures  in his desperate attempts at securing a U.S. visa.

The film makes use of several postmodern themes and techniques to weave a touching story out of assorted contemporary issues: diaspora (OFW phenomenon) and the fragmentation of the family, poverty and prosperity theology, colonial mentality and identity crisis, media and the commercialization of sacred symbols and practices, and others.  This study chiefly considers three features of postmodern culture that stand out in the film: bricolage, intertextuality, and a sense of the fragmentary.  A few instances of heightened irony and paradox, also markers of postmodernism, will be interspersed in the discussion.

Intertextuality is “the citation of one text within the other,” while bricolage is “the rearrangement and juxtaposition of previously unconnected signs to produce new codes of meaning.”1 Both result in the blurring of historical, cultural and genre boundaries.

The title itself is obviously a play on and appropriation of Ricky Martin’s  hit “La Vida Loca.”  In this context, the U.S. visa – a symbol of the American Dream -- is the “girl” who “make(s) you live (a) crazy life and (takes) away your pain like a bullet to your brain.”  This is dramatized by the crazy hodgepodge of US visa applicants at the early part of the movie who use convoluted logic and outrageously funny theatrics just to get the nod of the unsympathetic and unreasonably meticulous American consul.  The movie demonstrates the lengths to which many Filipinos will go just to make it to some greener pastures where, as one wit had put it, “the water bill is higher too” and where, in many cases, one has to live a crazy life of servitude.

Strange Planet, the British reality show which Jess had to participate in as the self-flagellating and crucified Kristo, calls to mind a host of similar television programs that feature the weird and the exotic from all over the globe (read: Real People, Ripley’s Believe it or Not, etc.).  What is ironic (or paradoxical?) here is that it is a reality show that is unreal ( just a show): it documents a contrived or made-up story of a supposedly penitent Christian who whips himself and gets himself nailed and hung on the cross to seek atonement for his sins or gain some other favors from the numinous. The real story is that the man Jess and the TV host, Nigel Adams, contracted for PhP 50,000 to become the Kristo took off with the money just before the filming began.  Incensed at the skulduggery, the Briton curses Filipinos for being such a “money-grabbing bunch of thieves” and swears that Jess never gets a visa (the old man earlier promised to help Jess get a caregiving job in Florida). Jess negotiates and impulsively volunteers to be the Kristo thus saving his only chance to emigrate to America.

The healing/blessing crusade of “Brother Jake” in the movie obviously points viewers to that of El Shaddai founder Brother Mike Velarde, with all the produce-your-own-eggs, upturn-your- umbrellas gimmicks. This home-grown Filipino charismatic ministry itself refers back to the works of other televangelists.  As noted by Michael Allen in his review of Katharine Wiegele’s work on the El Shaddai:

...Wiegele notes that Velarde’s theology is strikingly similar to that preached by a prosperity Salvationist called Robertson on an American TV program in the mid-1980s. Like Robertson, Velarde began by running his own radio show on which he raised substantial donations by focusing on healing, career success and monetary rewards for those who say ‘yes’ to Jesus. The good news that he preaches is, in his own words, ‘an assurance of financial prosperity, good health and spiritual maturity and stability to them who believe and serve,’ especially to those who give generous donations to the El Shaddai organisation.  For his predominantly poor working-class Catholic listerners, Velarde’s material heaven-on-earth gospel was to prove a most attractive to the orthodox Catholic positive evaluation of poverty.2

But more than just bearing a striking resemblance to Robertson’s work (and to other local self-styled miracle workers like Wilde Almeda and Eddie Villanueva), Velarde’s theology and ministry reflect what travelogue writer James Hamilton-Paterson describes as the “Filipinos’ cheerfully eclectic, mix’n’match approach to religion”3 for in this religious movement one sees the amalgamation of some aspects of American-style televangelism (media network, fund-sourcing, and political alliances), Folk Catholicism (faith healing, personality cults, sanctification of religious artifacts, and veneration of saints),     Evangelical Christianity (folksy preaching and  Bible exposition), and Pentecostalism (emotional speeches and kinesthetic worship).  This smorgasbord of traditions is, of course, very Postmodern4 and neatly ties with theologian E. Acoba’s observation that “our contemporary postmodern Philippine context is actually extremely complex, rooted in multi-layered assumptions that define the many contemporary Filipino worldviews.”5

The Philippine religious context is thus an assortment of the pagan and the Christian, the religious and the secular,  and magic and realism as parodized in the film’s panning of televangelists, faith healers, mystics, and ventriloquists.

The centrepiece of bricolage and intertextuality in this film is the five choristers who frequently intrude into the movie to provide comic relief and general commentary or to personify Jess’ conscience.  While it partakes of the nature of a Greek chorus, it also bears the characteristics of a group of Pasyon singers recounting or commenting on, not the Passion of the Christ, but the struggles of an ordinary Filipino who is willing to go through the harrowing challenge of his personal Calvary to obtain salvation from the clutches of poverty. As the Greek chorus is stylized as a Filipino religious narrative, the Pasyon itself – originally intended to minister  “to the sick, dying, bereaved” and recited at burials6 but later used by Filipinos as a “line of protest” against the Spanish regime7 – is recast as a contemporary satire.  The sacred-profane divide is thus blurred, just as it is in the case of Mang Sancho (Johnny Delgado), Jess’ father, who would refuse to take a bath on a Lenten Season because it is "forbidden [by God]" but who at the same time spends his time watching on TV gyrating girls clad only in their lingerie. Historical and genre boundaries are not the only ones blurred in the movie, however. Even the thin line between the real and the unreal is blurred when the oldest female chorister moves out of her “virtual proscenium” to sit beside Jess and interact with him. The use of the choristers thus exemplifies the conflation of the past and the present, the religious and the secular, the serious and the comical.

We may view this eclectic parody of a film as evidence of the movie’s “incredulity towards metanarratives,”   but that topic does not fall within the scope of this study.  However, we can explore Brother Jake’s “Prosperity Gospel” as a Foucauldian Discourse (rule-making, power-conferring set of beliefs and practices) which intensifies the sense of the fragmentary in contemporary Philippine society.  For as one of the most vociferous critics of the Charismatic Movement argued:

There is much confusion, guilt, and heartache among charismatics and non-charismatics because of what they have been told about healing. The agony of disease and illness is only intensified when people feel that they are not healed because of their sin, their lack of faith, or God’s indifference to them.  They reason that if healing is available and they do not get it, it is either their fault or God’s. Thus, faith healers have left untold wreckage in their wake.8

Naturally, when “Health-and-Wealth Gospel” preachers conjure up a Puppet-God who in the end cannot be manipulated to churn out the expected material abundance, many believers are emotionally and spiritually wrecked.  Brad Burke put it this way:

We “instinctively expect” only good from this higher power, as if it were our legitimate cosmic right to perpetually enjoy the “Happy Meals” of life.  And when the “cosmic cashier” screws up and slides us something we didn’t order, we grow angry and start questioning the  cashier’s competency – not to mention his intelligence, motives, and dedication in serving us, the “paying customer.” 9

And if successful or failed psychosomatic healings in Miracle Crusades could cause disorientation -- if not disillusionment -- among the pious, so could a Lenten Season Panata (vow) which is duly performed but not duly rewarded.  Mang Sancho, for instance, once faithfully carried out his role as Kristo and his wife was miraculously healed.  In the end though, the wife goes to America and leaves him for an American husband. Says the old man to Jess who inquired why he doesn’t do Panata anymore: “I have a different faith now.  I no longer believe in sacrifices like those... She was healed, took off to America, and was gone from me. When she left, so did my faith.” Florentino Hornedo helps us understand the psychology behind this:

Why are “prosperity preachers” so popular and command mammoth crowds of people?  Why are shrines of petition which promise “perpetual help,” solutions “for the impossible,” festivals in Obando, Bulacan, where people in need of a life-partner, or an offspring so well attended?  The answer is the same as that which makes the devotees of the Nazarene in Quiapo congregate there is so huge a number of the ninth of January each year.  They pray for favors and they promise to do their part when they receive the favor desired. 10

And when the favour desired is not granted, the devotee eventually gives up the pledge.

At the end of the movie, Jess finally gets the coveted visa as a reward for his bloody sacrifice but, at the last moment, decides to forego his emigration plans to care for his aged, diabetic father and build a family with Mara with whom he fathered a boy.  The happy ending, however, is not so reassuring and leaves us wondering if this “neat” closure actually betrays a wish fulfilment, a hankering for wholeness in a contemporary society fragmented by colonial mentality, a multiplicity of religious contexts, and a “national policy [of] labor migration [which] results in marginalization, social dislocation, downward social mobility, and family fragmentation.”11

While not as phenomenal as The Matrix movies nor “pastiched” as the Shrek series, La Visa Loimage taken from is a worthy contribution of Philippine Cinema to the enrichment of our postmodern experience.

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1 Chris BarkerCultural Studies: Theory and Practice, 2nd ed. ( London: SAGE Publications, 2003), 209. See also Linda Hutcheon, “Postmodernism,” Simon Malpas and Paul Wake, eds., The Routledge Companion to Critical Theory (New York: Routledge, 2006), 116. "Text" is used here as "anything that can be read" and includes not only written material but virtually everything that may be viewed as signifying something.

2 Michael Allen, “Book Review of Investing in Miracles: El Shaddai and the Transformation of Popular Catholicism in the Philippines” by Katharine L. Wiegele. Australian Journal of Anthropology. 17 (2006): 376.

3 James Hamilton Patterson, “Spiritual Behavior,” New Statesman, 135 (2006) 4818:49.

4 see Charles Jencks, “What is Post-Modernism?” in Walter Truett Anderson, ed., The Truth About the Truth: De-confusing  and Re-constructing the Postmodern World (New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1995), 26-33.

5 E. Acoba, “A Locus for Doing Theologies: Theological Stories at the Front Lines of Grassroots Missions Engagement,” John Suk, ed., Doing Theology in the Philippines (Manila: ATS/OMF, 2005), 25.

6 Noli Mendoza, “A Friend in Solidarity: Spirituality and Christology in the Pasyon of Gaspar Aquino de Belen,” John Suk, Doing Theology in the Philippines, 162.

7 Jim Perkinson & S. Lily L. Mendoza, “Indigenous Filipino Pasyon Defying Colonial Euro-Reason.” Journal of Third World Studies XXI (Spring 2004) 1: 122.

8 John F. MacArthur , Jr., Charismatic Chaos ( Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992), 256.

9 Brad Burke, Is God Obsolete? (Colorado Springs, CO: Victor, 2006), 27.

10 Florentino H. Hornedo, The Favor of the Gods: Essays in Filipino Religious Thoughts and Behavior (Manila: UST Publishing House, 2001), 9.

11Athena E Gorospe, “Case Study: Overseas Filipino Workers,”  Evangelical Review of Theology. 31 (October 2007) 4: 370.

Works Cited:

Allen, Michael. Review of Investing in Miracles: El Shaddai and the Transformation of Popular Catholicism in the Philippines by Katharine L. Wiegele. Australian Journal of Anthropology. 17 (2006): 376-378.

Anderson, Walter Truett, ed., The Truth About the Truth: De-confusing  and Re-constructing the Postmodern World. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1995.

Barker, Chris. Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice. 2nd ed.  London: SAGE Publications, 2003.

Brad Burke. Is God Obsolete? Colorado Springs, CO: Victor, 2006.

Gorospe, Athena E. “Case Study: Overseas Filipino Workers.”  Evangelical Review of Theology. 31 (2007): 369-375.

Hornedo, Florentino H. The Favor of the Gods: Essays in Filipino Religious Thoughts and Behavior. Manila: UST Publishing House, 2001.

MacArthur, John F.,  Jr., Charismatic Chaos. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992.

Malpas, Simon and Paul Wake, eds., The Routledge Companion to Critical Theory. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Paterson, James Hamilton. “Spiritual Behavior.” New Statesman. 135 (2006): 48-49.

Perkinson, Jim & S. Lily L. Mendoza. “Indigenous Filipino Pasyon Defying Colonial Euro-Reason.” Journal of Third World Studies. XXI (2004): 117-137.

Suk, John, ed. Doing Theology in the Philippines. Manila: ATS/OMF, 2005.

Scott Magkachi Sabóy

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