The beauty of history and Philippine television in ‘Maria Clara at Ibarra’
By Andrei Miguel Hermosa
This article contains spoilers.
Most of us probably have memories of studying Noli Me Tangere back in high school. Whether that be writing book reports, playing a character in a performance, or simply staying up all night reading the novel, Jose Rizal’s obra maestra has definitely left its mark on us. For sure, the names Crisostomo Ibarra, Maria Clara, Padre Damaso, Sisa, and Elias are still familiar to us.
However, some of us probably don’t remember all the nuanced symbolism and underlying messages of the novel. And for sure, some have already forgotten what Ibarra represents, or where Padre Damaso’s despicable personality was based on. With the passage of time and the rise of technology, our minds are slowly forgetting the significance of Rizal’s works that resonate with us up to this day.
Thankfully, GMA Network’s latest historical fantasy series, Maria Clara at Ibarra, has given Filipino audiences an opportunity to revisit Rizal’s novels and increase their appreciation for Philippine history.
The fantasy series is a modern adaptation of Noli Me Tangere and to a shorter extent, El Filibusterismo. The fantasy series follows the journey of Maria Clara “Klay” Infantes (Barbie Forteza), a modern-day nursing student who suddenly gets transported into the world of Noli Me Tangere. There, she becomes a witness to the novel’s events and meets its characters, including Maria Clara (Julie Anne San Jose) and Crisostomo Ibarra (Dennis Trillo).
Since its release on Oct. 3, 2022, Maria Clara at Ibarra has been consistently racking up strong viewership numbers and taking over Twitter trends. The series has received universal acclaim from critics and viewers for its script, cinematography, production design, costumes, and the cast’s performances. But more importantly, the series has spurred the interest of Filipino audiences in Rizal’s novels and shown them the significance of such novels.
A unique and intriguing adaptation
The show’s creative premise plays a huge part in piquing the audience’s interest. The idea of a modern-day Filipino getting transported to the world of Noli Me Tangere is certainly intriguing enough to get anyone to check out the show. And instead of the typical third-person point of view, most of the story is told from the fresh and modern perspective of Klay, a Gen Z Filipina.
With Klay’s presence, the episodes certainly become more entertaining. Seeing her bring Gen Z energy to an 1800s setting is truly amusing to watch. Her fish-out-of-water background has led to several comedic moments, such as her frequent usage of modern-day slang words like “Marites” and “babu,” and Maria Clara getting perplexed by the existence of a bra and panty. Furthermore, Klay is relatable to young audiences, who seem to be the show’s target audience. Because of her Gen Z traits, young audiences may easily see Klay as a representation of themselves as they watch the series.
However, apart from bringing humor and relatability, Klay’s presence in the world of Noli Me Tangere helps bring to light the social issues that Rizal depicted in his works. Through Klay’s interactions with the characters, we get a clear look into the social injustices and inequalities that tormented Filipinos during the Spanish colonial period. It’s very fitting that the storyteller is someone like Klay, who experiences modern-day injustices, including living with an abusive stepfather and getting underpaid for her job. Being a witness and victim of injustices herself, she is able to sympathize with the characters and easily point out the social issues around them, including the corruption of Spanish friars and the inequalities between men and women.
For instance, her conversations with Maria Clara, wherein she criticized the mestiza for being too self-effacing and submissive, showed how powerless women were during the colonial period. Their perceived significance in society was limited to being future wives and helpmates of men; they were deprived of opportunities such as education and jobs. Similarly, Klay’s encounters with Sisa (Andrea Torres) and her sons, Crispin and Basilio, put emphasis on the unfortunate circumstances that Filipinos from the lower class had to endure back then.
As we witness the misfortunes and tragedies of the characters through Klay’s eyes, we are reminded of just how dark and tragic our country’s past is. And frankly, that’s what makes Rizal’s novels truly exceptional — they are clear and brutally honest depictions of the sufferings that Filipinos endured during the Spanish colonization period.
A brilliant portrayal of characters
As Maria Clara at Ibarra explores the social issues depicted in Rizal’s novels, it also showcases the beauty of the novels’ characters. With sharp writing and stellar performances, the series managed to deliver an accurate and impactful portrayal of Rizal’s iconic characters.
Throughout the show, the characters are explored in a way that highlights their motivations, symbols, and notable qualities. For instance, Ibarra’s idealistic and patriotic personality, which mirrors Rizal’s own, is demonstrated in several episodes. We witness him adamantly pushing for educational reforms, getting outraged over the friars’ atrocities, and denouncing the “social cancer” that was plaguing the country. Likewise, the hypocrisy of Spanish friars is displayed through Padre Damaso and Padre Salvi, who both commit heinous sins while simultaneously preaching gospels and being perceived by the public as holy figures.
Moreover, the show also redefines our perceptions of some characters who have been misunderstood and painted in a negative light. In particular, the character of Sisa, who has been stereotyped as “crazy” and made the butt of jokes over the years, was finally given justice. The show took her character seriously and gave her a lot of emotional scenes where viewers could see the one quality that truly defines her: a loving mother. Coupled with Andrea Torres’ cathartic portrayal, the show made it clear that Sisa was not a crazy character. Rather, she was a mother who had to brave the agony of losing her sons and failing to protect them from the abuses of those in power.
The series’ brilliant portrayal of characters reminds viewers of what always made these characters remarkable and more importantly, their significance in history and society. Each character is a representation of the people during the Spanish colonial period: the good, the evil, and the unfortunate. Up until today, these representations remain evident in modern society. People like Padre Damaso and Padre Salvi still exist and have power over us, and there are people like Sisa and her sons who constantly suffer from the injustices and inequalities brought about by those in power. But of course, there will always be heroes like Ibarra who will fight for their country and countrymen at all costs.
We can’t change the past, but we can learn from it
One theme that consistently resonates throughout the series is the question of whether the past can still be changed. From time to time, Klay constantly interferes with the characters’ lives and tries to prevent unfavorable events from happening. In the process, she is able to alter some details from the original story and make her own changes to the lives of the characters she interacts with.
However, although Klay was able to make a few modifications, the story still unfolded and ended the way it was supposed to. From Maria Clara and Ibarra’s separation in Noli Me Tangere to their deaths in El Filibusterismo, the most crucial events of Rizal’s novels still happened.
Through this, Maria Clara at Ibarra tries to tell us an important message about history: we cannot change the past, but we can definitely learn from it. In doing so, we must not forget about all the horrors and tragedies that befell our country. No matter how dark and tragic the past is, there are a lot of lessons we can learn from it, which we must use to define the future that we want to see in our country.
Admittedly, I myself had hoped to see a different ending where Maria Clara and Ibarra lived happily ever after. I thought it would have been an interesting change — a “what-if” that could be explored beautifully. However, I’m thankful that the show did not go in that direction. If it did, its message wouldn’t be as strong. Apart from being a disservice to Rizal’s works, it would distort the darkness behind our country’s past. Giving happy endings to Rizal’s characters, who are representations of colonial Filipinos, will misrepresent the dreadful circumstances of the country during the colonial era and thus invalidate the struggles and hardships that our ancestors went through. That’s not how history should be told.
A huge milestone for Philippine television
With its inventive story and thought-provoking interpretation of Rizal’s novels, Maria Clara at Ibarra flaunts the beauty of Philippine history and sets the bar high for Philippine television. The cast and crew, who made this excellence possible, truly deserve all the praises and accolades they have been getting.
Overall, the series’ biggest accomplishment is sparking the interest of modern Filipinos in Philippine history and teaching them important lessons from it in a non-didactic manner. Due to the series’ popularity, there has been a growing interest in reading and rereading Rizal’s novels among both young and old audiences. Furthermore, this popularity also opened profound conversations about Rizal’s novels, his symbolic characters, and their messages that are relevant up to this day.
The brilliance of Maria Clara at Ibarra is proof that the Philippine television industry is truly capable of crafting groundbreaking creations. With the right personnel, a high level of creativity, and adequate support from audiences, anything is possible. Hopefully, media companies will be inspired by Maria Clara and Ibarra to step up their games further and produce more high-quality television shows, especially those that will promote the beauty of our country’s history, literature, and culture.
There is certainly a brighter future for Philippine television that’s about to come, and all I can say is: I will be seated.
Maria Clara at Ibarra is available to stream on GMA Network.