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By the Book: Alessandra de Rossi plays a young teacher on a mission in 'Small Voices.'

School Days

'Small Voices' gets a chance to be heard in a story about a remote school in the Philippines

By Richard von Busack

ANY REPUTABLE DICTIONARY of received ideas includes the following item under "The Philippines": "Spent 500 years in a convent and 50 years in Hollywood." The script for Small Voices seems like it spent 50 years in Hollywood, anyway, probably in a filing cabinet. Give it credit, this shamelessly sticky import by director Gil Portes certainly has something to say about the plight of the remotest schools and the village dwellers in the Philippines.

Small Voices is the one about the idealistic teacher who goes to the countryside, thus turning down a chance to work in the United States, where her parents are living. She arrives only to find that the school is a burned-out shell, the administrators are hardhearted or corrupt, and the parents believe that "book-larning" would just interfere with their kids' rightful place plowing the fields.

Armed with only her enthusiasm and a classical flute that her late musician father gave her, Melinda (Alessandra de Rossi) arrives at the remote village of Malawig to organize the local children into a singing group that bids to displace the Vienna Boys Choir. Local color--the film's saving grace--abounds, in the scenes of traditional village life, the winnowing of rice, the gathering of coconuts and the weaving of baskets. Moreover, there are moments of rural comedy relief by the Sikh moneylender Mr. Singh, who cashes checks and brings mail from the outside world.

The film couldn't have been easy to make, since it portrays school officials as porcine (one of the teachers gets the kids in debt with coconut and milk popsicles on credit, then hires them to clean her house). And a subplot about guerrillas in the hills doesn't judge their political motives. The film even mourns for the rebels when their bodies wash up in the local creek. This isn't government propaganda. The locations, replete with Pacific island scenery, will cheer homesick Pinoys. Small Voices boasts a feminist streak as well, discussing how the pressure to quit is stronger on the female students, who are presumed to grow up to be mothers and wives, so what would they need with education? (This plot point is the one that Portes overworks; when one of the parents protests that her daughter could never make any money being a nurse, it doesn't jibe with the knowledge that Filipino nurses are working everywhere in the world--even though it's low pay at home that makes them go overseas, and sometimes they end up in abusive situations when they get there.) Small Voices, probably because it has kids in it, implies what the news has exposed: how domestic workers from the Philippines were molested in Saudi Arabian households. Small Voices evinces a strong thread of social criticism underneath the often mushy plot of the singing contest. Unfortunately, even the way Portes reshuffles the ending (to increase suspense) shows the movie's essential slickness.

Small Voices (Unrated; 105 min.), directed and written by Gil Portes, photographed by Ely Cruz and starring Alessandra de Rossi, opens Friday at the Towne Theater in San Jose.

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From the September 18-24, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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