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Review: ‘Atsay’: The Maid as Person

Mario E. Bautista, The Philippines Daily Express, 1978

Well-acted and done with utmost care, “Atsay” is definitely one of the very few good
films of 1978.

The picture begins with the kind of burning, indelible imagery that promises great
moviemaking, showing the small funeral procession of Nora’s father mournfully winding
its way through the verdant fields of a bucolic landscape. Romeo Vitug’s camera is
properly inert and unobtrusive. Its placements studied and functional, its point of view is
of one who seems to be merely eavesdropping on the whole proceedings. This gives the
establishing sequences a leisurely beauty permeated by melancholy, which is the tone
the film eventually takes for its oppressed heroine.

This is the first time that the local cinema takes a serious, sympathetic look on the
lowly domestic help. Housemaids are usually portrayed as brainless sidekicks of the
leading lady, often played by the likes of Aruray, Matimtiman Cruz and Matutina. Such a
fragile theme showing the exploitation and personal sufferings of an “atsay,” could easily
have been ground to a pulp, making the film a calculating, manipulating purveyor of tears.

But Eddie Garcia is clearly a filmmaker of discretion who knows how to make his
character endearing without resorting to schmaltz.

The film may be divided into four fragments. The first portion shows the abject
poverty of Nora’s family in the province and how she is enticed by Bella Flores, along
with some friends, to go to the city with a promise of lucrative jobs for them. Next comes
her stay with Angie Ferro, an upstart with four brutish children whose father is working in
Iran. In the third segment, Nora works for Armida Siguion-Reyna, a domineering career
woman whose henpecked husband, Renato Robles, deflowers Nora. Finally, we see
Nora finding love in Ronald Corveau, the bitter ward of an old woman, Mona Liza, who
helps Nora when she loses consciousness on the railroad tracks.

This episodic nature of the film robs it of much of its power. Too slack in pacing and
too mannered at times, the film runs a long two-and-a-half hours and can easily stand
some re-editing. Such scenes showing what happened to Nora’s friends in Lilian Laing’s
cabaret may be pruned without actually damaging the central story. This would also add
greater impact to Nora’s reunion with Amy Austria, also a “provinciana” who is
transformed into a brazen ago-go dancer with half-a-dozen sugar daddies. The film
likewise falters in the final portion involving Corveau as a love interest. It seems to be an
altogether different element, but one cannot really fault the film’s authors for wanting to
give the film a happy ending. It’s just that this kind of optimism may entertain false hopes
of finding romance and happiness somewhere in all the atsays who would see this film and
identify with its leading character. This is also true for the old man who befriends Nora
and inexplicably turns up wherever she goes. Wouldn’t it be nice if all atsays would have a
similar personal guardian angel to protect them from inhuman bosses.

Edgardo Reyes’ script succeeds though in showing the various experiences typically
encountered by household helps: unruly children who torture helpless servants, wives who
treat their pets more humanely than their overworked slaves, husbands who take
advantage of their loneliness and are known as atsay-killers. People who have been unkind
and inconsiderate to their servants at one time or another may feel uneasy, if not totally
guilty, as they watch the film.

Garcia assembled a uniformly first-rate cast from Armida and Angie to the nameless
housemaid who befriends Nora. Even Ronald Corveau is less irksome here than in his
weekly TV show. Nora Aunor’s performance bears the distinct marks of style and self,
welding character and personality. As Nelia, the atsay, she delivers a muted performance
that successfully treads the thin, delicate line separating genuine sentiment and

Everybody worked hard and it shows. Romeo Vitug’s cinematography gives the film a
very big boost and George Canseco’s musical score, for once knows when to shut up. The
first time Eddie Garcia handled a film with a serious theme was in “Mga Anak sa
Pagkakasala,” an underrated indictment of the injustices illegitimate children go through as
society censures them for the sins of their parents. With “Atsay,” he renews his credentials
as one director to reckon with.

Sent to us by Ron