Giving birth to a child is a defining moment in every woman’s life. It represents the fulfillment of a biological purpose. It is also the promise of hope in a new being. Each society across the globe infuses the miracle of motherhood with its own particularities, but there is a unanimous appreciation and respect towards mothers as symbols of prosperity and keepers of a continuous cycle of life. Ironically in Brillante Mendoza’s film Thy Womb, the protagonist, a midwife unable to bear a child for her husband, decides to find him a fit woman to deliver him an heir. With immersive filmmaking and a breathtaking setting, this slice of life feature transcends mere ethnography to bring to the screen an augmented and visceral vision of reality.
Few words are ever spoken by Shaleha (Nora Aunor ), but her expressive eyes convey a religious peace and a love that knows no boundaries. Knowing that her partner Bangas-An (Bembol Roco) is reluctant to adopt a child and aware that her infertility won’t let her satisfy that necessity, she takes matters into her own hands. What she needs is simply a surrogate mother, someone who can provide him with such joy. Nonetheless, in this Bajau Muslim island community there are rules to abide by, and finding a mother for her husband’s child essentially means searching for a new wife. Lacking any sort of jealousy or selfishness Shaleha’s unconditional love motivates her to help him find the right young lady. Not only must they obtain permission from the woman’s family but they are required to raise a sizable amount of money and goods as dowry. Together they sell fish, trade, borrow and scrap as much as they can until they are able to afford Bangas-An's new wife.
Rendered to help others become mothers but never getting that opportunity herself, Shaleha is a character fueled by faith and not tormented by the poising nature of human desire. Played by acclaimed actress Nora Aunor, she carries the film through its many passages and depictions of the Bajau’s lifestyle. Nurturing and assertive she is indeed a woman more than capable of caring for a child, but the cards she has been dealt require her to act with selflessness. Naturalistic and minimal her performance resonates even in the silent and humble poetry that permeate the images.
Relying upon a basic storyline, the magic of the film lies in its design. Form is more relevant here than any twist and turns in the plot. Arranged with an eclectic cinematic grammar, the director incorporates aerial shots of the sea gypsy community combined with underwater sequences, slow motion observational shots, and seemingly traditional filmmaking that are always in motion, never static. The camera is alive, it moves around this world with grace. It is also completely conspicuous making the viewer aware of its presence. Mendoza places his characters in the real world and films them, which creates a sort of raw fiction that is neither entirely scripted or fully documentarian. Still, for all the experimental elements he includes, Mendoza made a film about tradition that simultaneously inspires a sense of discovery. Via its postcard-worthy landscapes and all-consuming spirituality, Thy Womb is a film that revels in its apparent simplicity, which makes for a compelling and revelatory piece. It lets outsiders intrude into a place undamaged by modernity and functioning in harmony despite being surrounded by external turmoil.