Sister Stella L. (Mike De Leon, 1984)

Enlightenment is not a badge, but a wound. Mike De Leon tells of the transformation of a charity worker nun into a politically active front-line soldier.

Mike De Leon is next to Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal in the line of master directors of the second golden age of Filipino cinema. Compared to his colleagues, his filmography is manageable: where those – due to their early death in a narrower period – cranked down dozens of films, often several in a year, De Leon has only completed nine feature films since his debut. This may have something to do with the characteristical disposition of the passionate loner (“I just want to be alone, I’m no longer a director and I’m no longer a public property” – with these words he had rejected a prize this year, another reason should be sought in the films themselves: While in the work of his colleagues, a tension between the formulas of commercial genre cinema and the political-aesthetic use of the author filmmaker remains (and not only between the films, so between the many commissioned works and the few heart projects, but also within the films), seems to be unequivocal at De Leon: Batch ’81 is precisely the ultimate allegory of the Marcos dictatorship, because the film as claustrophobic thriller works wonderfully; and Sister Stella L. is therefore a poignant and clairvoyant testimony of the resistance against this very dictatorship, because De Leon is at the same time a gifted melodramatic.

Stella in the monastery, Stella in the streets

It starts with a split: twice Sister Stella . The one, older (Laurice Guillen), surnamed Bautista, sees her place outside the convent, on the streets, among the slum dwellers, who she enlightens about her political rights, including the striking workers who stand in front of the sweeping carriages of the bosses throw on the concrete. A great traveling star in the film: Stella B. walks through a slum with Nick Fajardo, a journalist, the camera slides in front of the speakers and casually captures the life around which the nun reports: playing children, Street dogs, even the poor house facades are suddenly no longer a backdrop, but receive subject status.

The younger Stella (Vilma Santos), surnamed Legaspi, that Stella L., who gives the film its name, used to be with Nick Fajardo before she went to the convent. It is not yet as far as Stella B., it still wavers between the white costumes of the convent’s living, charitable and therefore only subsequently helping, pain relieving nuns and the blue divide of the politically active women in the front. A young woman, who seeks help after an abortion in the Convention, accuses her of having not suffered herself and therefore could not understand her.

The nuns’ gown as an open visor

In the course of the film, the younger Sister Stella will inherit the older – a key scene shows the staff handing over: both Stella faces side by side in a split screen setting. In this central aspect, Sister Stella L. is a straightforward didactic cinema: the hesitant becomes the resolute, the spectator the actor. And even the nuns’ gait soon no longer has the same meaning, no longer stands for renunciation and self-denial, but on the contrary for an open visor: Framed by the hood looks the face that has left all self-protection, all adjustment behind, not more, as in the first shot of the film, transfigured to God, but free and open to the world: At the very end Stella holds a speech directly into the camera, directly into the audience, a secularized sermon, the same ethical-moral self-positioning and call for Fight is. Nonnentracht and framing together isolate the face, which seems to become a permeable membrane that creates a link between cinema and the world.

Sister Stella L. was created in 1984, during the last years of the Marcos regime, at a time when censorship seemed to be losing control of the cinema: De Leon’s film, after its completion, had to contend with performance bans, but the mere The fact that suddenly in the middle of the industry – Sister Stella L. and also Lino Brocka’s a year later Bayan Ko – My Country was produced by Lily Monteverde, the grande dame of commercial Filipino cinema – openly made political cinema possible on the creeping loss of authority of the regime. And indeed, Sister Stella L is . a film that not only speaks of oppression but also outlines the fundamentals of a new, pluralistically organized polity.

Fight the external and internal resistances

As in the two years before Batch ’81 , the relationship between the individual and the institution is at stake. This time, however, there is not one alternative institution, which provides all the freedom and which, once it has licked blood, one devours with skin and hair. Instead, there are several competing institutions: church, newspaper, union; and individuals not only have the choice between them, but also within the chosen, in themselves pluralistic, institution of creative freedom. However, this scope is realized only in the fight against resistance; and the political use of the film consists precisely in demonstrating that these resistances are not only external in nature (police, censorship, strikebreakers, rules of the order), but also settle in the individuals themselves, in the form of traditions, religious dogmas, false assumptions, short-sighted self-interest.

Sometimes the moral rigor of the film (which is not always very far from the totality of terror that Batch ’81 demonstrates) can scare you: is there really a Stella B in each one of us, just waiting to catch up? successful self-discipline qua self-education to break path? The great thing about the film, however, is that it tells the cognitive process that Stella L. goes through, not as a sober essay, but as an emotional melodrama (culminating in two deaths and also communicating in the melancholic guitar sounds that replace the harpsichord chase from Batch ’81 ): Stella L. becomes a mature revolutionary subject through empathy with pain, enlightenment is not a badge, but a wound.

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