What lingers perhaps after seeing Isa Pa with Feelings, a slow burn romantic film directed by Prime Cruz, is how contained it is. That in its straight forwardness and gentle treatment, it was able to touch on heavy themes without losing its entertainment value.
The film draws us into the aquarium-like world of Mara and Gali, metaphor well-exploited to depict what started out as a symbiotic friendship between a young architect wallowing in depression after failing in the licensure exam and a deaf man whose options in the world are limited because of his disability.
Early on in the film, expectations of success are piled high on Mara Navarro (Maine Mendoza), who graduated with honors from a prestigious university and is working as an underboard architect for a swanky firm. So it does not come as a surprise when after failing the exams, she withdraws from the world to soul search.
As she struggles in the pit of self-loathing, Mara takes solace in her friendship with Gali (Carlo), the sign language instructor assigned to her during the lessons she took so she can communicate with her deaf niece.
Gali himself appears self-sufficient and content in his narrow world and chosen vocation but also struggles with his own fears and insecurities as a person with disability.
This being a romantic movie, feelings bloom between Mara and Gali but the question now is: will they have the courage to face their love despite the adversities that await them?
Unlike other films in which star-crossed lovers confront external forces of epic proportions like a debilitating illness or the need to chase dreams across oceans and find themselves, the struggle in Isa Pa with Feelings is more internally driven.
As Mara stews in self-pity, she attempts to hold on to the last vestiges of emotional strength by refusing to make Gali her emotional crutch but finds herself falling for him faster than she expected.
Gali, who seems so self-assured in the beginning, begins to wrestle with his fears and insecurities and finds himself still unable to let go of the pain inflicted by a past relationship.
Isa Pa with Feelings may very well be Maine Mendoza’s showcase movie as an actress for we really see her flexing her dramatic skills in this one.
Maine’s take on Mara’s character is so divorced from how we usually see her in a way that she handled the role with equal parts restraint and candor. Her trademark comedic talent is still there as displayed in the scene where she acts out a scene from a movie in sign language so Gali can understand it.
Carlo Aquino, meanwhile, may well be one of the most versatile leading men of our generation, meshing well with any leading lady and bringing out the best in them. We are charmed by how naturally he steps into Gali’s shoes, conveying complex emotions with minute changes in facial expression and body language.
The film gives us both Mara and Gali’s perspective so we can empathize with the characters. Such that when we are pulled into Gali’s perspective, we feel his fears and insecurities.
Granted that material strife is not used as a source of conflict in the film, it still makes little sense how a jobless architect and a volunteer teacher can maintain the lifestyle they have.
Even if they are supported by family, their socioeconomic status in the film casts doubt over the reality of such things.
Even Mara’s relationship with her former boss is a little unhinged, bordering on harassment as he consistently persuades her to return to work despite her professionally inferior status and unwillingness.
In the real world, material strife for the incapacitated in whatever form is very real and plays a big part in one’s actions and life decisions. Even this aspect is not used to produce conflict, this could have been touched on in a more realistic manner.
At only a little over an hour and a half, Isa Pa with Feelings also manages to touch on several serious themes such as the lack of schools for the deaf in the Philippines and the lack of education for parents of deaf mute children.
At the same time, we are shown how some Filipinos lack the social and emotional skills to help deaf people take their place in society.
“We are worlds apart,” Gali tells Mara because he knows such restrictions very well. If Mara is the believer, Gali is the realist. He knows that sometimes, love can conquer all but there are times when it’s not enough.
Should their love be given a chance?
Isa Pa with Feelings is graded A by the Cinema Evaluation Board (CEB).
Ed's Note: The "PEP Review" section carries the views of individual reviewers, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the PEP editorial team.