‘Maria Clara at Ibarra’ turned Rizal into a romance writer

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Actors Julie Anne San Jose and Dennis Trillo are Maria Clara and Ibarra, lovers against the world. —INSTAGRAM PHOTOS: @netflixph

At the restaurant, I could hear the women’s conversation clearly. My ears perked up when I heard a network’s name and its popular TV show in one breath.

“Its finale was GMA’s most watched,” said the woman whose back was to me.

“The youth of today are so lucky! They can just watch Jose Rizal’s novels!” gushed the woman across from her.

“You know, I only understood ‘Noli Me Tangere’ and ‘El Filibusterismo’ when I watched ‘Maria Clara at Ibarra,’” said the woman seated beside the one who raised the topic.

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Fidel’s heart belongs to Klay whether he is an entrepreneur or freedom fighter.

The buzz about the 52-episode “Maria Clara at Ibarra” was hard to ignore, especially regarding the characters Fidel de los Reyes y Maglipol and Maria Clara “Klay” Ynfantes played by David Licauco and Barbie Forteza, respectively. I wondered what was going on. My high school lessons on Rizal’s novels never mentioned Fidel, an entrepreneur, as Crisostomo Ibarra’s best friend, or Klay, a nursing student, as his “cousin.”

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Best friends Ibarra and Fidel go twinning in three-piece suits.

There’s no begrudging the tremendous success of “Maria Clara at Ibarra.” It was Netflix Philippines’ most watched show two days after it premiered in April, and the #MariaClaraAtIbarraonNetflix trended on Twitter Philippines. But as a literature teacher and a reader, I have questions: What happens to Rizal’s original intention? Did it help to learn Philippine history?

Impressive production 

The effort put into the series was obvious. The actors weren’t cloying, with emotions conveyed through the eyes and body gestures. Tirso Cruz III, Andrea Torres, and Juancho Triviño were particularly riveting as Padre Damaso, Sisa, and Padre Salvi, respectively. They exuded control, and didn’t regress into sentimentality.

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Juancho Triviño’s Padre Salvi is a brooding, scheming villain. —INSTAGRAM PHOTO: @davidlicauco

The stylists Jan Raroque, Roko Arceo and Margie Sorro pulled out all the sartorial stops in costuming the actors in the fashion of the bygone eras. Arceo, in an interview with philstar.com, said no expense was spared on the ladies’ Filipiniana and the gentlemen’s suits that cost P30,000 to P40,000 per set for materials, labor, and accessories (i.e., fancy fans held by a chain, bowler and top hats, and canes). 

The team, said Arceo, took liberties in making Simoun’s wardrobe, “playing on prints and colors” to exude a foppish, eccentric vibe, to contrast with Ibarra’s monochromatic suits. But Arceo emphasized that they stuck to Rizal’s description of Simoun having long, white hair that contrasted with the black goatee, and dressing in English fashion accentuated by dark glasses and a pith helmet.

Another world

Portal fiction wove its magic on viewers through Klay’s time travel adventures, leaving them guessing how she’d extricate herself from various situations. This isn’t surprising because the focus of the genre, according to masterclass.com, is the character who travels from the present world into another realm through a magical portal. (Examples of some famous portals are the 9 3/4 train platform in London that Harry Potter goes through to reach Hogwarts and a wardrobe that the Pevensie siblings climb into to get to Narnia.) Klay’s portals were Rizal’s novels and Maria Clara’s hair comb. 

A distinct feature of portal fiction is its trope of leaving the “real world” for a far more fantastical one, and navigating it. This is the trope that opened creative pathways for head writer Suzette Doctolero and her team to fit Fidel and Klay into the reimagined plot, write new story trajectories, and undo tragic events by speculating on the what-ifs. 

Creative guesses 

A major what-if in “El Filibusterismo” is Maria Clara’s death in the convent from an illness. Simoun learns this from Basilio, and the dandy silver fox is wracked with pain because Maria Clara died “…without knowing [he’d] lived for her.” Doctolero had the lovers meet after 13 years, paralleling it to Fidel and Klay’s nascent relationship. Actors Julie Anne San Jose and Dennis Trillo laced the tragic lovers’ brief reunion with bittersweet poignancy without regressing into maudlin expressions of love, longing, and grief when Maria Clara was accidentally shot by Salvi.

Simoun and Damaso meeting again in “Maria Clara at Ibarra” was another interesting conjecture. It was startling to see a doddering Damaso unable to remember Simoun, who was back with a vengeance but who left deflated. In the novel, Damaso leaves for Manila after Maria Clara enters the nunnery; he eventually dies after being posted to a distant province.

The death of Elias after helping Ibarra escape from the guardia civil is the emblematic fate of indios bereft of education, money, and social standing. But in the series, he was reborn as the comrade and close friend of Fidel who’d turned into a freedom fighter nicknamed “the enlightened one.” Tellingly, Elias’ resurrection in the series recast indios from cursed, subservient creatures into a formidable force of social change.

Noticeably, with the focus on the lovers in the series, the novel’s subplot on the dismal state of education was overshadowed. “‘Noli Me Tangere’ exposed the defects in the system of education pursued in the colleges and in Filipino universities and the evil results of the teachings,” said historian Teodoro A. Agoncillo in “The Revolt of the Masses,” quoting T.H. Pardo de Tavera.

Placido Penitente’s case, the physics class, and Isagani and Fr. Fernandez’s chat, with the latter arguing strongly for the futility in educating Filipinos, are the chapters narrating the flaws in the educational system in length.

Klay’s mystical appearance in her namesake’s bedroom in the series set the what-if ball rolling. Her presence was antithetical to the time and place, giving rise to comical scenes (i.e., Maria Clara and Fidel imitating Klay’s turn of phrase, saying “yarn” and “babu” respectively.) Maria Clara and friends were bewildered by Klay’s undergarment. To help Klay fit in, Maria Clara taught the “crazy extranjera” that womanhood was all about being beautiful and seen, but never heard.

The critique on misogyny was unexpected but welcome, and thus, Klay educated everyone on gender equality. She fought against being browbeaten and assaulted by men to keep her in place. She went head-to-head with the priests, Capitan Basilio, including Fidel and Ibarra in the initial stages of their relationship, who thought little of women’s worth outside of the domestic setting.

Portraits of women

The presence of strong women—led by Klay—was a forceful argument for the success of “Maria Clara at Ibarra. In the novels, Maria Clara and Julî recede from society. Maria Clara is fragile and prone to tears at the slightest provocation. She’s taciturn when Padre Damaso and Capitan Tiago make arrangements for her marriage to Linares, and cries at the mention of Ibarra’s name. In the series, Maria Clara was confident and decisive after Klay urged her to think and speak her mind. She cried, not because of fragility, but frustration at the state of affairs. She vehemently rejected Linares’ marriage proposal, telling him she’d only marry Ibarra. She defied her father and visited Ibarra together with Klay, both of them disguised as gentlemen—when they were forbidden to see each other.

Julî’s rebirth in “Maria Clara at Ibarra” was an indictment of the shaming and blaming of rape victims. She chose life and reconciled with Basilio after listening to Klay. In contrast, Julî, in the novel, commits suicide after being coerced by Sister Balî to see Padre Camorra for Basilio’s release. Balî is the reverse of Klay, playing down Julî’s fears of Camorra, gaslighting her for Basilio’s death if she fails to get the priest’s help, and belittling her because a priest won’t be interested in a peasant girl.

Paralleling the strong women are the victimized women (i.e., Doña Consolación and Sisa). In the novel, Doña Consolación is a former washerwoman who dresses badly and is beaten and later abandoned by her husband, the alferez. Her cruel side has her whipping Sisa and causing the death of Társilo Alasigan, an alleged conspirator who insults her. She had him submerged in the well and then defiles his body with cigarette burns.

Significantly, “Maria Clara at Ibarra” attempted to explain Consolaciôn’s behavior. When Fidel prevented her from whipping Sisa and she countered with a threat of her husband arresting him and Klay, Fidel’s riposte silenced her: She wasn’t important and never held a special place in her husband’s heart. That fleeting realization in her eyes showed how psychologically scarred she was by the absence of friendship, love, and respect in her life.

Sisa’s descent into insanity is pegged on Crispin’s death, but she is already teetering on the brink prior to his death. “Maria Clara at Ibarra” framed her insanity within the oppressive living conditions of the Spanish colonial period, where years of destitution, living with a wayward husband, and social prejudice took their heavy toll on her. Her children were her anchor to sanity, and their disappearance completely unhinged her. Klay protecting Sisa from people’s callousness and Fidel sending her to the hospital for treatment depicted Philippine society’s uphill battle against the stigma of mental illness.

Romance or politics?

Portal fiction works well with most, but not all, literary genres. Old Egyptian, Greek, and Norse mythologies were successfully made relatable to young American readers by author Rick Riordan, who added demigod characters like Percy Jackson to the pantheon of mythological deities, but retained the original premise of the universe’s creation and the gods’ origins. However, reworking political novels is problematic.

With “Maria Clara at Ibarra,” Rizal’s political novels were turned into historical fiction romance set in colonized Philippines. Romance isn’t a problem, but Rizal’s novels are not about romantic love. As the historian Ambeth Ocampo has pointed out, Rizal revealed the “cancer” in the Philippine society of his day in “Noli Me Tangere,” and presented revolution as the solution for the Philippines’ future in “El Filibusterismo.”

The interrupted romances of Maria Clara and Ibarra, Salome and Elias, and Basilio and Julî are examples of how colonial rule permeated every aspect of life. Undeniably, “Maria Clara at Ibarra” showed the friars’ cruelty, the poverty, and absence of social justice in the colonized Philippines, but the K-drama finale of Klay and Fidel’s reunion eclipsed its fight for independence. Fidel arriving at Klay’s timeline replicated Emperor Lee Gon returning to Jeong Tae-uel after traveling to various timelines from the K-drama series “The King: Eternal Monarch.”

Arguably, the novels are fiction. But, said Agoncillo, nothing was purely imagination in “[Rizal’s] character portrayal or in his delineation of the local color: every incident, every character was real and breathing the polluted Philippine air [in] ‘Noli Me Tangere.’” Meanwhile, “El Fibusterismo” continues Rizal’s political protests, revealing what Agoncillo called “his radical and revolutionary tendencies as exemplified in the iconoclast Simoun.”

Ignoring the context of Rizal’s works and simply viewing “Maria Clara at Ibarra” as romance comprise a thorny premise. With the act of reading a tall order these days and Philippine history relegated to the back burner in schools, “Maria Clara at Ibarra” only muddled whatever scant knowledge of history Filipino students are grasping. Significantly, sentiments about “Maria Clara at Ibarra” are centered on Fidel and Klay’s romance, trumping discussions about the Philippines’ colonial past, present, and future history.

But all is not lost. Teachers can use “Maria Clara at Ibarra” as a supplementary tool in their classes. I would use it if I decide to teach literature again; I’d discuss the framing of Philippine history in Rizal’s works and in the series, among other things, and require my students to read the novels and materials on Philippine history.

And is anyone willing to start the discussion on “Maria Clara at Ibarra,” Jose Rizal, and Philippine history?

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