The easiest comment to make about the critically acclaimed Cinemalaya film Respeto is that it’s a film about rapping. Just rapping. That it’s about rap battles, and living in the ghetto, and mic drops, and spitting fire, and whatever else you might expect from a film that’s been described as a testament to the power of language. And that’s partially right, but Respeto is more than its beats and verses.
Directed and co-written by Treb Monteras II, who initially made a name for himself as a music video director, the film revolves around two characters: Hendrix (played by Abra) is an amateur rapper who finds refuge and meaning in hip-hop, and sees rapping as a way out from the conditions that make his life difficult. Through a botched theft attempt, he meets Doc (played by Dido de la Paz), a writer and owner of a secondhand bookstore who acts as a sort of mentor to Hendrix.
Both Hendrix are Doc are soldiers of words, but that’s not the only thing they have in common. Each of them engage and are shaped by political brutality — Hendrix by the ongoing drug war, and Doc by Ferdinand Marcos’s martial law reign and its lingering effects. Through Hendrix’s and Doc’s eyes, we are forced to confront in a clearer, harsher light the atrocities that have defined and continue to define the state of the country. At the same time, we get to acknowledge that we are shaped by our conditions, which can be and usually are merciless and cruel. Hip-hop happens to be in that world, but as the film makes unforgivably clear, finding hope in words amidst brutality and violence isn’t exactly easy.
This is all to say, Respeto ain’t just about hip-hop. It’s about resistance — to external, political forces, and to despair, which takes root within.
The thematic concerns of Respeto are honestly enough to warrant a trip to the movie house, so to know that the film also hits the right beats most of the time is kind of a miracle. Dido de la Paz’s acting is phenomenal, his presence imposing enough to steal a scene whenever the scene calls for it. Also, whoever subtitled this film, props to them — how they translated the lines of the rap battle scenes and managed to make them rhyme (with varying degrees of success) is anyone’s guess.
There are places in which one could reasonably say Respeto falls short — smaller conflicts are left seemingly unresolved. I would like to be charitable and say that for the film to deprive us the feeling of closure is precisely the point, but understandably these creative decisions might leave some viewers with an overall dissatisfying experience.
Still, if you’re looking for a film that unflinchingly holds a mirror to a nation plagued by unrest, Respeto pulls no punches. Or rather, it does not hold its tongue.
Respeto is scheduled to be screened nationwide starting September 20. For more information, check out the film’s official Facebook page.