Hindsight Review: GMA Network’s Impactful “Maria Clara at Ibarra” a Refreshing Change of Pace for Philippine Television

Hindsight Review: GMA Network’s Impactful “Maria Clara at Ibarra” a Refreshing Change of Pace for Philippine Television

No spoilers.

GMA Network’s Maria Clara at Ibarra has been a refreshing and engaging series. I’ve always dreamed of a big budget contemporary adaptation of Jose Rizal’s seminal novels. (Partly because I barely remember my speed reading of Noli Me Tangere in high school and I’ve never read El Filibusterismo at all.)

When GMA first announced Maria Clara at Ibarra, I thought it was such an interesting idea. I wasn’t sure exactly how it would turn out, but I’ve also been interested in seeing more historical or period dramas on Philippine TV. That is instead of the typical teleserye fodder the networks (ALL networks) trot out over and over.

But Maria Clara at Ibarra ended up being a wonderful blend of faithful adaptation and modern commentary.

The series surprisingly brought Jose Rizal’s words to vivid life. The introduction of Barbie Forteza’s Klay into the pages of the two novels served as the gateway to what was (as far as I can tell) a faithful adaptation of Noli Me Tangere. Some of the novel’s most iconic and memorable scenes produced some stunning and breathtaking television.

Barbie Forteza, Dennis Trillo and Julie Anne San Jose have really delivered career defining performances. But the biggest highlight of the entire series is most definitely Andrea Torres’ tour de force performance as Sisa. Especially in this awe inspiring scene:

For years, I’d always see the idea of “crazy Sisa” be the butt of jokes on Philippine TV. So-called comedians wailing “Crispin! Basilio!” as a way to imply someone is too far gone.

But Maria Clara at Ibarra was able to explore Sisa’s character in a way I don’t think would’ve been possible even in a feature film adaptation of the novel. Audiences of all ages were able to see the character of Sisa in a new and fuller light. First, as a mother desperately looking for her children who were essentially ripped from her arms. Second, as an example of the very real oppression and injustice inflicted on Filipinos in the Spanish colonial period. And finally, as simply an example of family’s role in Filipino culture and society.

The same can be said for the rest of the series as well. Maria Clara at Ibarra‘s biggest accomplishment may be finally getting Filipinos interested in not just Jose Rizal’s work, but in history in general. So much can be learned about our past, present and future in such works. Yet many, if not most of us rarely take the initiative to truly take a look.

When GMA Network produced Ilustrado, a biographical miniseries starring Alden Richards as Jose Rizal, audiences shrugged their shoulders. Despite the series being a lush, high-quality production, Filipino audiences just were not interested in something they had “learned in school.”

At the time, some of the more open minded people suggested that GMA or any other network embark on a full-fledged adaptation of Noli Me Tangere. But again, most of the reaction was along the lines of “I already know the story, why would I want to watch it on TV.” The assumption was that a live action Noli Me Tangere would be boring. At least, compared to the typical teleserye.

But Maria Clara at Ibarra seemed to prove that preconceived notion wrong. Not only did Noli Me Tangere feature many of the exact same themes and tropes Filipinos loves in their teleseryes, the story itself is still as resonant and affecting today in 2023 as it was back when it helped sparked a revolution.

The character of Klay allowed Maria Clara at Ibarra to be the modern audience’s gateway to both of Jose Rizal’s novels. And it wasn’t in a begrudging way. People were legitimately interested in the next chapters of the novel. Most of the time, Klay really was just an observer of the story in real time. The point of the series wasn’t to have an interloper come and change the story and fates of Jose Rizal’s characters. But instead, be our modern eye to the themes and ideas Jose Rizal presented in his influential work.

The series allowing Noli Me Tangere (and to a lesser extent El Filibusterismo) be accessible to a modern audience is something high school teachers must wish they could have done. It’s unfortunate that we need something like a primetime soap opera adaptation to get especially young Filipinos interested in such an important part of the country’s history and development. But at the very least, Maria Clara at Ibarra helped to spur interest and maybe moving forward (at least in the near future), kids will pay a bit more attention in history and literature class.

As wonderful as most of the series has been, it certainly isn’t perfect. Of course, no series is. But it’s important to note some missteps as well.

The series’ biggest misstep is perhaps another typical aspect of Filipino television. And that is the extension. Maria Clara at Ibarra was extended a few times and in these last couple of weeks, it has become very evident. The fast-paced excitement and engaging intrigue sort of faded away a little bit.

The Klay and Fidel romance helped to provide a lighthearted side of the story. And Barbie Forteza and David Licauco found a great chemistry that did not exist in their most recent project together (Mano Po Legacy). But the series leaned in a bit too heavily on it lately. Much to the delight of many fans. But maybe as a consequence of needing to pad these final weeks.

Of course, the series did not treat El Filibusterismo the same way as Noli Me Tangere. That is, Klay’s story was much different hopping into El Filibusterismo than her original book-hopping experience. But the twist definitely injected a different dynamic into the series. While it came across fine, the difference between the two “books” was only highlighted by episodes making the extensions more obvious. The feeling that you could see they were stretching the series past their original plans. Which is certainly not uncommon for Filipino series.

For the first 2/3 of the series, they were able to balance the faithful adaptation of the source material with the whimsical nature of Klay’s existence in the story (and everything that is affected, good or bad, by her presence). But in this final third, the downsides of typical Filipino television tried to seep its way into what is otherwise an excellent and refreshing series.

Maria Clara at Ibarra Hindsight Review

Ultimately, Maria Clara at Ibarra was a familiar Filipino story at heart. Family and friendship. Fighting for what’s right. Kilig romance. And maybe most important, a plethora of examples depicting more of Jose Rizal’s immortal words. Specifically:

“Ang hindi marunong lumingon sa pinanggalingan ay hindi makakarating sa paroroonan.”

Not only did it provide a welcome change of pace on Philippine television. Not only did it fuel a renewed interest in the Philippines’ history and Filipino roots. Not only was it a showcase for wonderful performances. Not only was it a visual treat. Not only was it a respectful and faithful adaptation of some of the most important words written by a Filipino. Maria Clara at Ibarra has been simply an entertaining, enjoyable and exciting viewing experience. That’s not something that can be said often for a Filipino television series. But it is much deserved here.

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