Vilma Santos, the nationally proclaimed Star for All Seasons, seemed too big a celebrity to take on the role of a simple, professional extra. She has more star power than the rest of the combined cast, and that's no small feat considering the film has the likes of Piolo Pascual, Marian Rivera, and Cherie Gil on the roster.
But I was wrong.
Vilma Santos plays Loida Malabanan, a professional extra who aspires to one day make it as a legitimate actress. When she gets the opportunity to be more than just the silent background actor she's paid to be, she ends up going to great lengths to prove that she has the mettle to make it into the big leagues.
It's no surprise that Santos represents the raw muscle of Ekstra. She carries the bulk of the film on her shoulders, and provides the emotional fulcrum of the story. While that isn't a knock on Jeffrey Jeturian's exceptional direction, or Zig Dulay and Antoinette Jadaone's sharp script, it is a testament to Santos' place as one of the most iconic actresses in Philippine cinema.
Santos' ability to share a scene with her co-actors, regardless of her experience and her celebrity status, is the true feat here. She blends right into the crowd when she needs to, and stands out in a scene when she's asked to. She sets both the pace and the tone of the film. Under Jeturian's experienced direction, Santos moves seamlessly from light-hearted punchlines to heartfelt drama. And though it's easy to laugh at the antics of Loida and her cast of extras, it's not easy to forget the kind of pathos she carries with her.
Like all effective comedies, Ekstra doesn't end with the punchlines.
Loida dreams that her hard work and sleepless nights will, one day, amount to something more than just silent background. But her dreams of stardom become telenovelas of their own--ungrounded and out-of-touch with reality. She forgets that her dreams, like television, are nailed to the earth by deadlines, commercial breaks, and production delays. She is paying the price for her own entertainment.
It's a strong theme that is thankfully not spray-painted on the script of Ekstra, but is unmistakably there. Whether we notice it or not, this becomes the overlooked crowd in the background.
But if there's one thing that shouldn't be overlooked, it's Santos' performance. Regardless of your opinion of her as a celebrity or as a politician, Santos remains to be one of the most talented actors in the industry.
Ekstra is the kind of Philippine comedy that all other comedies should aspire to be, harnessing great talent with a story that is both thoughtful and entertaining. Hopefully, that kind of sentiment doesn't fade into the background.
THE VERDICT: Ekstra is an effective Philippine comedy that is not only worthy of the Star for All Seasons, but deserving of movie audiences who want more from their usual slapstick Filipino punchlines.
Ekstra premiered at the Cinemalaya 2013 film festival last month. It opens in theaters nationwide today, August 14.
Ekstra is one of our top movie picks for August.