In recent years, as the conditions of third world mega cities are constantly addressed in the news and wider culture, filmmakers have been able to comment on the realities and social injustices of these spaces defined by poverty, inequality and crime, most notably in Brazil with films such as Fernando Meirelles and Katie Lund’s City of God (2002) and Jose Padilha’s Bus 174 (2002) finding mass audiences and spreading the message across the world. Metro Manila follows in the footsteps of these films, but is unique in its honesty and soulfulness. Rather than shock, Ellis’s film is an exercise in subtlety and elegance; It is a moving experience, affective and emotional charged, that grips the heart and overwhelms the senses, expressed with such confidence and stunning visual tenderness that it has to be considered as one of the stand out cinematic experiences of the year.

Seeking a brighter future in megacity Manila, Oscar Ramirez and his family leave behind their life in the rice fields of the northern Philippines, to make a fresh start, with the dreams of modern city fueling them forward. But the sweltering capital’s dishonesty, intensity and cruelties quickly overwhelm them, as they are manipulated and left in utter squalor. However, as things look to be increasingly hopeless, Oscar is offered the opportunity of work with an armored truck company, where his new partner embraces him and helps him find his feet in the city.  However, all is not as it seems, as the motives of his new partner and the stark reality of his work’s mortality rate leaves Oscar in a position where he has to face the darkness of Metro Manila in order to try and save his and his family’s future.

Metro Manila’s narrative is at once a haunting slice of realist drama, one that refuses to hold its punches as Oscar experiences the bitter and cruel treatment of crafty locals in modern Manila, framed coldly like moments of cutting and real life horror. However, what separates the film from other realist dramas and enhances its emotional power is an element of melodrama Ellis weaves into the realism. This is reinforced by the performances of the actors, who are utterly honest and emotionally vulnerable. The actors channel a sense of real life experience that only enhances the raw honesty of the film. You can feel the weight of their lives etched into their expressions, the way they carry themselves and deep within their eyes, burning out with a passion and a will to survive that is extraordinary to behold. The stand out performer is Jake Macapagal, as the film’s central character Oscar; he is utterly compelling as an everyman constantly fighting for his family’s sake, no matter the exploitation or personal sacrifice. Macapagal is physically bold and expressive, fueled with an intensity that enhances the desperation and drama of the film’s narrative. Few performances in recent memory are as real, as honest and most importantly, as absolutely entrancing as his. Audiences will remember this character, and this performance, long after the credits roll.

Sean Ellis deserves much acclaim for his amazing display of ability and touch. Ellis has crafted a stylish film rich with stark realism where you can feel the grime of the streets, and the juxtaposition between overcrowding and isolation in this modern megacity is articulated with such accuracy that you can feel both the intensity of claustrophobia and the overarching loneliness of these lost souls collapsing into each other, and hit you straight in your chest with an emotional brutality. However, unlike the brash excess of City of God before it, Ellis combines this realism with a sense of romanticism, an almost ethereal visual quality, reminiscent of the poetic realism of the 1940’s. Beautiful images float through the dirt and grime, as if the film is searching for the hope in this world, just like Oscar. Moments of human tenderness linger, captured in soft focus with a naturalism that emphasizes the purity of the moment, and reveal the real hope left in this world is that of two souls touching and holding together against the storm of life. To balance the darkness with such a hopeful light is a piece of magical brilliance that elevates the film into the realm of poetry.

Metro Manila is a rare and beautiful treat: absolutely honest, and yet dramatically gripping. A work of art that deserves acclaim for its blend of realism and style to create an emotional poem imbued with the power to move and shock the audience through the elegance and brutality of life.

VERDICT: [rating=5]

About The Author

Matthew Hammond is a full time cinephile, specializing in cult, art house and 1980s cinema. While film is his overwhelming passion, Matthew has been known to enjoy comic books, Sherlock Holmes stories and a good film related T-shirt. Feel free to email me with any questions or comments: