The street of low-lives in this slum neighborhood represents the Philippines at large and the human condition at largest. There, that's the gist. Many "great" Filipino films are micro-macro like this. Ataul For Rent reaches for a grand encapsulation, but with minimum precision and less subtlety. It's the kind of movie in which a crazy homeless person is the wisest man among fools, with the wisest words. Like the recent Tribu, Ataul is not much of a narrative and not much in insight, but an achievement in slice-of-ghetto-life bits and pieces. Some details are hard to forget.
Among the large ensemble of bottom-dwellers (most of whom are perennial actors' actors), Coco Martin plays a snatcher and a callboy. For a prostitute, the actor, chunkier than when we last saw him, doesn't even take his shirt off in the entire film. There are also two female prostitutes here, who also remain discreetly covered or slightly turned so that we don't see anything. If this movie were made in the late 90's, such missed opportunities for sex and nudity would be unforgivable. Writer-Director Neal Tan, who made several B-movie boldies in the past, seems to have found a more chaste aesthetic. Or could the culprit be either of the following: (a) the aim for a respectable rating from the MTRCB censors? Or (b) the aim to be called Art Film, and the notion that art must be tasteful?
More positively, Denver Olivarez, in his first movie role since winning the Ginoong Filipinas 2007 title, plays a drug pusher and addict who's often shirtless. In one scene, he's taking a shower in a street corner in white briefs. But he's shot too far away that we barely get to enjoy it as a wet underwear moment. His naughty face brings excitement though. Jet Alcantara, a third hunk, is unrecognizable here, and his role disposable.
Ataul has two homosexual characters worthy of close scrutiny. Tita Swarding is the pimp who peddles women prostitutes, then later a minor girl; and an unnamed swishy Customer in a taxi who picks up the callboy, then... (SPOILER ALERT!) ...gets murdered. Later, Coco Martin gets chased as the killer. It's an interesting storyline straight from the headlines. Maybe something is being said about how the lives of the poor can only get more miserable and how salvation lies in the afterlife, but I'm more interested in this: In a movie of varied representations of Filipino people, the only gay people are the pimp who sells sex and the customer who buys. Even the male prostitute who sells his body is depicted as possibly non-gay (heterosexual) with a female love interest. Is this our role in the world? If not criminals, then victims? Should we be bothered by this representation? Discuss.