We don’t know grief until we’re made to mourn. Or at least, till we see Above the Clouds, Pepe Diokno’s sophomore film that aptly disguises grieving men’s emotional inner journey as the average man’s mountain hike.
Unlike his debut work, Engkwentro, that depicts lawlessness and trite injustices, Pepe’s second attempt at storytelling reworks the familiar themes of death and loss into a fresh, relatable narrative. The first step is to make his characters climb Mount Pulag.
15-year-old Andres (Ruru Madrid) is left with his estranged grandfather (Pepe Smith) after losing his parents to a deadly typhoon. The latter takes him to the mountains where Andres’ parents once went. In here, they deal with their inner conflicts—the teen struggles with nightmarish guilt, while the elder man wallows in his neglectful past—and eventually, trumping them at the mountaintop.
Ruru, Pepe, and Mount Pulag
I had my first fill of the film through its trailer. Three things ran in my head then: Pepe Smith can act? Who’s this ball of cute, young man over here? And when has screaming in mountains become a thing in local films?
Of course, I had to watch and learn. Pepe Smith plays a grandparent with the spunk of a rock star, often delivering lines with a deadpan expression and right comedic timing. Ruru Madrid, who happens to be a revelation-slash-GMA 7’s next wonder boy, reenacts teen angst with a manly calm. The two were essential pawns to a script peppered with banter that range from parental nagging to cuss-filled comebacks to existential discourse.
But what further complements a smooth script and internalized characters is a backdrop that depicts sentiments amid the silence. Carlo Mendoza’s cinematography captures Mount Pulag and its indelible façade. Past the aesthetic merits, though, the landscape lends depth to scenes, often serving as the visual aid to accurately depict its grieving cast. To employ its set more than a mere convenient, Instagram-worthy locale is one of the film’s most notable strengths.
Old tropes, new ways
But its other asset lies pretty much in its core. Pepe Diokno deals with an emotion that’s not only overused, but also over-felt. To take themes like loss, death, grief, and estrangement and translate them into 90 minutes for public consumption means reminding the audience of how it was to feel them.
Sure, Andres throws a crying fit a few times in the film, and he and his grandfather needed to yell as a form of therapy. We can call it cliché, but all familiar things are. What makes it fresh is how they are used sparingly in the film.
Gone are the tired spectacles of ugly criers and scream-fests so popular when depicting grief. What we have here are scenes spent in natural solitude to go back to the core of its cast’s sorrows. When we think about it, don’t those who suffer most speak and do the least?
The trip to the mountaintop is as much a fitting metaphor to how the characters deal with loose ends, as much as it is an opportunity to realize what else is there amid all the losses.
But it’s not just about them: At the end of the film, we, the audience, also climbed our own mountains—one that’s made of pent-up angers and regrets that we needed to feel to overcome. Thank goodness we have this film to help us with that.