It has been such a treat catching up with the first two weeks of GMA Network’s Maria Clara at Ibarra. The fantasy series sees Maria Clara “Klay” Infantes (Barbie Forteza) somehow transported from Manila 2022 right into the pages of national hero Jose Rizal’s seminal novel Noli Me Tangere.
As a Filipino-American, I was never required to read Noli Me Tangere or any of Jose Rizal’s influential work in school. But for a senior year high school English project, we were required to choose an author, research their life and read one of their works in order to craft a lesson we would be presenting to the class. I did not hesitate to choose Jose Rizal. And Noli Me Tangere was the novel I read.
I’m about 15 years removed from high school so it’s been a while since I sped through those pages of Noli Me Tangere. But even as a Filipino-American kid, I understood its importance in Philippine history. Jose Rizal’s works helped to establish a unified Filipino identity which would then lead to influencing the Philippine Revolution against the oppressive Spanish rule.
Though the novel has been adapted in many forms, including a 1961 film and a 1993 TV miniseries, I’ve always thought of what it would be like to have a big-budget adaptation of the epic novel produced today.
That adaptation will have to wait, but Maria Clara at Ibarra is definitely a creative and refreshing way to deliver the novel’s story to a modern audience. And also at the same time using Rizal’s writing to shine a light on current and relevant themes about present-day life of Filipinos.
While it is not a time travel story, the series definitely has a few of the hallmarks of one. Mainly the always-fun fish out of water dynamic for such a story’s time traveler. In the case of Klay, she is just a modern-day college student who somehow finds herself in Noli Me Tangere and its 1884 Las Filipinas setting. That trusty dynamic has already produced some amusing moments including conservative colonial ladies baffled by the idea of a bra and panty and young, handsome mestizo gentlemen shocked that a poor young binibini like Klay can speak excellent English. And even Klay uttering foreign, modern-day words like yarn or baboo or Marites!
It’s those kinds of moments that help the audience relate to Klay as they experience this foreign, yet familiar world together. Once Klay realizes where she is, the story of Noli Me Tangere plays out as it does in Jose Rizal’s novel. Unfortunately for Klay, she has only read up to Chapter 3 before getting stuck between the pages. So she, like much of today’s audience, will have to experience or re-experience the story like they would any new, original TV story.
And that’s one of the things that Maria Clara at Ibarra hopes to accomplish. By its creative premise, it allows for the story of Noli Me Tangere to be told in a refreshing way. The touch of fantasy and the modern-day Klay serve as a gateway to the story and makes the series itself all the more relatable. And maybe more importantly, more accessible to a wider audience without having to be sitting in a high school classroom.
Klay is initially sent into the world of Noli Me Tangere by her mysterious professor in order to learn first-hand of the importance and continued relevance of Jose Rizal’s writings to today’s Philippines.
The premiere episode takes care to lay out Klay’s present-day life. She is a nursing student, working a full-time job, hoping to break her family’s cycle of poverty and abuse by landing a job abroad. She believes leaving the Philippines is the only way she’ll be able to give her mother and half-brother a better life.
Klay’s frustrations boil over thanks to a special assignment her professor (Lou Veloso) gives her after she falls asleep in class. Klay even says “Ang hirap-hirap mahalin ng Pilipinas.” It is a sentiment that is shared by many Filipinos who struggle day-to-day or others who may not agree with its direction and the persistent inequalities.
It is after this outburst of emotion from Klay that Professor Torres hands her an old, worn-out book of Noli Me Tangere and tells her to read this one instead of her more recently-published version. Little does Klay know, this worn-out book is what will eventually, literally, transport her into the story.
Maria Clara at Ibarra proceeds to faithfully dramatize the pages of Noli Me Tangere, with Klay an eyewitness to every major event. Once she reaches the end of her knowledge of the story, she must then blindly navigate the rest of its pages while figuring out what exactly her endgame is in order for her to go home.
Though she is sure of a few things. She should be able to trust Noli Me Tangere‘s bida/protagonist Crisostomo Ibarra (Dennis Trillo) and his love interest Maria Clara (Julie Ann San Jose), especially against obvious kontrabida/villain Padre Damaso (Tirso Cruz III).
Much of the series’ dramatic moments come from the faithful adaptation of the novel while its many lighter moments come from Klay being a fish out of water. A modern young Filipina having to adapt to a far different time. And a different time reacting to this odd stranger with unique clothing who speaks a baffling, yet familiar language.
The series is able to find a balance between being a straight adaptation of Noli Me Tangere and being a whimsical fantasy. Bringing those two sides together and through Klay’s perspective, the series aims to answer the prompt from Professor Torres. What is Noli Me Tangere‘s relevance to toady’s Philippines? And why is it important to recognize its importance in the country’s history.
Noli Me Tangere itself is ripe with juicy drama. It is a story with romance, betrayal, action, adventure. Certainly more exciting than many modern-day (recycled!) teleseryes. A straight, big budget adaptation of the novel would be an exciting experience on its own.
But the extra twist makes the story accessible and fresh. Which should be appealing to as wide an audience as possible. That is, for an audience who might feel like the novel is a chore to read through or remember. Or an audience who might need a reminder of its significance and continued relevance.
Aside from the engaging and fun story, Maria Clara at Ibarra‘s visuals are equally so. Seeing the country’s well-preserved colonial buildings and neighborhoods, all certified historical sites and even UNESCO World Heritage sites as well, in stunning HD and as a setting for a locally-produced television series is amazing. There aren’t soundstages or cardboard facades. There are actual, existing locations. Buildings and streets that have stood for more than a century. And now highlighted through excellent cinematography.
The attention to detail is very much appreciated. And that goes for the wardrobe and set design (in existing locations too!) as well as the lines being spoken in colonial era-Filipino.
To make those lines feel and sound natural, it’s a tough task for the actors. But so far, they’ve delivered. Of course, the contrast between Klay’s modern-day “Gen-Z” slang and the prim and proper colonial Filipino mixed with Spanish is one of the series’ amusing quirks. But the actors playing the Noli Me Tangere characters, especially Dennis Trillo, Julie Ann San Jose and Tirso Cruz III in the novel’s lead roles, are careful and deliberate with their accents and intonation. They even make you crave for a full-on original historical Filipino drama.
And of course, Barbie Forteza as Klay is perfect casting. It’s hard to imagine any other young actress who could embody the role better than her. Klay is a character that has difficult hardship, but can also be bubbly and energetic. It’s that mix of youth and maturity that Barbie has excelled in with her varied roles over the years. Her ability to make you both laugh and cry is one of her biggest strengths as an actress. And that talent is put to excellent use here.
Maria Clara at Ibarra is off to a wonderful, strong start. There are two story threads to follow: Klay’s needing to find her way home and the soap-worthy drama of Noli Me Tangere. Again, both engaging plots on their own. But an even bigger winner when they intersect to discuss modern-day issues and themes.
The series still has a long way to go, especially since every page of Jose Rizal’s epic novel is brimming with intrigue. And so far, the excellent cast, stunning visuals and both whimsical and engaging writing (past and present) make for a must-watch television event. That’s not something you can easily say for Philippine TV. And now that you can, it’s a huge treat.