by Pablo Tariman
John Arcilla as the healing priest, Fr. Fernando Suarez.
On this drizzling afternoon, actor John Arcilla talks about his roots which all started in Catanduanes where his father — Dominador Gil Alemania Arcilla – was born.
He says his role as the healing priest, Fr. Fernando Suarez, is not new to him.
To be sure, he grew up in a convent in Quezon where he was once an altar boy.
He is related to the Arcilla clan in Catanduanes, the most notable of whom are Bishops Jose C. Sorra (now retired) and the present Bishop Manolo de los Santos.
His father did not pursue priesthood but in this encounter, he confessed the unthinkable: his mother was a former nun.
He wanted the interview to be free-wheeling and thus one watched an actor casually rewinding the windmills of his mind.
He touched on his St. Joseph’s College days where some people mistook him for a free thinker. He probably didn’t believe in rituals. As he reviewed the religious sects abounding in his milieu, he concluded priests and others who represent other beliefs had one thing in common: they are basically human too and prone to make mistakes and susceptible to human weaknesses.
Thus when he prepared for his role as Fr. Suarez, he read everything there is to find about the celebrated healer priest.
Then he realized the man of the cloth has earthly side as he was equally drawn to serving God in his own way — by healing.
Preparing for the role, he cannot be bothered with mimicking physical gestures of his character.
He believes real acting can be achieved by just imbibing the essence of the man.
The art of portrayal he probably learned while he was discovering the joy of theater in his hometown, Baler in Quezon.
Through all these big breaks in film, Arcilla admits he could not have enjoyed what he is reaping now had it not been for his love affair with theater.
“I think the joy [of theater] is in the challenge of creating a different world right there onstage, in front of your audience. Of course, you are not just playing roles, you are continuously studying histories, cultures, human behaviors and bigger things than just a ‘boy and a girl, you and me’ stories. Every other play feels like the culmination of an event, and you can look at it on many layers—in human, communal and global terms.”
The acting bug bit Arcilla as early as age 7 when, before going to bed and staring at the ceiling of his humble abode, he imagined himself singing on a platform before a big audience and reveling in the applause. It was the martial law years, and his family was living in the middle of his mother’s coconut plantation in San Luis, Aurora, near the hacienda of former President Quezon.
In Baler, Aurora, where he started his grade school years, his only taste of theater was watching the comedia, the moro-moro and the cenaculo in the town plaza.
In the big city, his turning point in theater acting was joining the company of actors of CCP’s Tanghalang Pilipino. “It was our rigid training, the script analysis he programmed for us, that gave me access to the basics of theater technique. Nonon Padilla is so respectable that you will do everything in your power to do what he’s asking of you without him having to nag you.”
But while he was happy with theater, he was also aware of the plight of many theater actors. He was deeply saddened when actress Adul de Leon died of cancer; the wake was held in her little apartment and friends had to raise money to be able to afford the coffin. He also learned that Behn Cervantes had to sell property to pay for medicine and hospital bills. “I felt so scared thinking that after a theater person has given everything for his art, he will die just like that and be unable to afford his own burial.”
For him, there is only one source of acting: the truth within. “You can magnify it or make it subtle or subdued, depending on the medium and the genre.”
Asked to summarize his decades of acting on stage and film, he can only say ‘awesome’ and to some extent, ‘thrilling.’
He said he is not done with acting and the journey he wants to continue. “So many things to explore and so many great characters to portray after Heneral Luna and Fr. Suarez. “Given a chance, I can play Ninoy Aquino and yes, Digong Duterte. But I am still hoping I can portray the life and times of the late President Ramon Magsaysay.”
He admitted, he had some falling out with his faith when the German pope, Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger, also known as Pope Benedict XVI, resigned on February 10, 2013.
The move was considered unprecedented as every church head since Gregory XII in the early 15th century had fulfilled his papal duties until death.
Recalled Arcilla: “I was in New York and I was in this church and there was this silence that felt like something ended. I said how can a leader of the biggest religious congregation be so weak to admit he couldn’t lead anymore? As the days wore on, I realized that spiritual strength is also admitting your weakness. This did not come easy. Later in your life, you realize that admission of weakness can heal and it should be seen as a position of strength. I kept this mind when I portrayed Fr. Suarez. I know his unwavering faith but I also know his weakness. I like it that I can see life from the vantage point of many characters I have portrayed and people I came to know.”
The healing of John Arcilla didn’t come easy.
He had to tread on difficult paths and struggle to find the center of truth in his life.
(John Arcilla is the lead actor in the film, Fr. Suarez, The Healing Priest, an entry in the 2020 Metro Manila Film Festival directed by Joven Tan. Others in the cast are Dante Rivero, Troy Montero, Mario Mortel, Alice Dixon, Rosanna Roces, Jairus Aquino, Rita Avila, Richard Quan, Ms. Gina Pareno and Jin Macapagal as the young Fr. Suarez. The film starts streaming on December 25.)