On the day that you were born
The angels got together
And decided to create a dream come true…
Why do birds suddenly appear
Everytime you are near?
Just like me
They long to be
Close to you
How much of your life will you put on hold for someone who takes you for granted? Such is the question explored by Lino Brocka in his film Bona, starring Nora Aunor in the titular role and Philip Salvador.
The film opens with footage of devotees crowding around the statue of the Black Nazarene. The camera pans across the throng and zooms to a nonchalant bystander, a young woman named Bona. The next frame shows Bona at a film shoot, within arms’ reach of her real object of devotion – Gardo Villa (Salvador), a lower-tier actor with an ego heftier than his salary.
As Gardo’s not-so-secret admirer, Bona feels no remorse over cutting class and neglecting her household duties just to bring him refreshments at his shoots. This obsession puts Bona at odds with her domineering father, who sees no point in her reckless abandon.
One night, the dazed fan girl stays over at Gardo’s place, tending to him after he was mauled by a group of thugs led by the brother of one of his lovers. She goes so far as to fetch water, cook breakfast and bathe him. As Bona sets out doing all these tasks, Gardo is reminded of his late mother, a tough but caring femme fatale under whose shadow he lived most of his life.
Later in the day, Bona returns home only to be beaten and disowned by her father. She then goes back to Gardo, offering to keep house and serve him in exchange for a place to stay. Despite having grown up in a middle-class household, Bona adjusts to life in the slums and assimilates well with the neighbors. She becomes a valuable part of the community, even more helpful and well-liked than Gardo ever was.
Her devotion to the actor, however, is unrequited and for the most part, underappreciated. And yet she draws a false sense of authority from her self-inflicted servitude. This is most evident when Gardo brings home another woman and makes love to her within Bona’s sight and earshot. When Gardo leaves in the morning, the woman bosses around an unyielding Bona.
Gardo’s new paramour slaps Bona hard, a move that awakens the fighter in the latter. She slaps her right back, chasing her around the house and eventually beating her with a broomstick. Bona’s uncharacteristic violence is her way of marking her territory and asserting her place not only in Gardo’s house, but also in his life.
“Ikaw lang ang gusto kong pagsilbihan, Gardo, at hindi ibang tao. Ayokong dalhin mo sila rito sa pamamahay ko,” she told him.
Gardo responded by smacking her in the face. “Sira ka ba? At sinong nagsabi sayong pamamahay mo ‘to, ha? Sampid ka lang dito, at wala kang pakialam kung sino mang babae o ilan mang babae ang dalhin ko dito. Baka gusto mo ikaw ang palayasin ko dito?”
Bona, now in tears, answers, “Huwag! ‘di ko na uulitin.”
Bona is willful submission personified. The limits of what she can and cannot do are always in relation and in response to the men in her life: the father who controls her, Gardo who stunts her personal growth but whose every whim she yearns to satisfy, and the elder brother who becomes hostile to Bona after their father’s death, effectively severing her ties with the family.
In the same way, Gardo’s relationships with women also define him. The women in his life stand for different stages and repercussions of his maturity or lack thereof: his mother, a tough cookie who doted on her son to the point of spoiling him; Bona, whose devotion reminds Gardo of his own mother, a familiarity that would jinx any reciprocation of romance on his part; the prostitute and the actress in whose company he could feel “like a man”; Annie the seeming goody-two-shoes who bore his child, and whose abortion (organized by Bona upon Gardo’s plea) becomes a wake-up call for him and Katrina, an older woman besotted with Gardo who provides an opportunity for him to clean up his act and find his fortune elsewhere, albeit by spoonfeeding him still.
The bedrock upon which Bona’s devotion is founded, however, remains largely untapped. Besides a brief sequence showing her hugging a signed photo of Gardo to her chest (with the strains of “Sayang” by Claire dela Fuente in the background nonetheless), the audience is left curious – perhaps to the point of exasperation – to know just how or why she fell so hard for him in the first place. After all, it’s no mean feat to sustain sympathy for a character who renders herself none.
A simple explanation is offered. Nilo (Nanding Josef), a young man from the squatters who initially showed interest in Bona, asks of her: “Bona, bakit? Bakit ka pumayag na magpaganyan? Inaallila, pinapagad. Ginugutom.”
Unflinchingly, she replies, “Gusto ko eh. At hindi naman ako inaalila. Hindi naman ako napapagod.”
At the end of the film, one realizes even more the relevance of the opening scene with the Black Nazarene. It sets the tone for the premise of the film – adulation, devotion and its consequent sacrifices – and juxtaposes it with Bona’s experiece. Unlike the Nazarene, Bona, despite having sacrificed her whole life, does not get adulation in return. She is powerless, and this powerlessness is what defines her existence. But in her moments of assertion and empowerment, as with her maltreatment of Gardo’s other woman and again in the movie’s heated conclusion, Bona proves that underdogs are not always toothless, and that not even servitude can bear the grunt of silence.