What Makes ‘Maria Clara at Ibarra’ Your Engaging–But Eerily Accurate–Reflection of Today’s Society

On the night of October 3rd last year, GMA Network’s newest television series, Maria Clara at Ibarra, aired on national TV and captured the Filipinos’ hearts on its pilot episode. People all over the Internet grew in admiration on how promising this new television drama is—from their modern point-of-view, that, for certain, a lot of this day’s generation can relate to, down to the details of that era integrated in the series, Zig Dulay’s direction, casting, and stirring dialogues.

Viewers were quick to drop their devices and fixate their attention on the retelling of the Philippines’ historic past, answering head on the most important question of all, “Do we even need to still learn and care about what Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere tries to say?”

An opportunity to educate the Filipino audience but still keep them hooked surely was one thing the people behind this show had to think through. With the current social landscape of the country and the prevalence of misinformation and disinformation, there is no other perfect time to release such a series. Without a doubt, Noli Me Tángere and El Filibusterismo have been household names as they are Rizal’s most famous pieces have long been an integral cog in our education system, but not all Filipinos can recognize why these novels were even written at the outset. To many, including the modern-day protagonist of the series, it is just a school requirement.

Reliving the past would not be as engaging if this television drama just straight up adapted what’s in the book; therewith, Maria Clara “Klay” Infantes, played beautifully by Barbie Forteza, is the perfect element that complements the recount, as she clearly represents the young people of today. If history could not be brought to this modern world, sending the embodiment of the present to the past may be the key in bridging the two.

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Short clips of Forteza’s portrayal of the Gen Z nursing student definitely were one of the main facets that piqued the viewers’ attention, but Klay’s character was not brought solely for entertainment. She may have this bubbly, good-humored personality that lightens up the mood of the drama, but her role goes beyond that. Her personal struggles and her conflicted relationship with her elective subject are also the same things that resonate to the current youth experiences. 

Like the majority of Filipinos, Klay, a working student a daughter to a broken home, did not take interest in these novels of her own accord. The circumstances she is currently in do not allow her to prioritize diving into the depths of history’s significance when economic woes and day-to-day struggles get the big bulk of her time, attention, and energy. With that, Klay, like many Filipinos, tends to question the relevance of the literary classic in light of their daily priorities, such as making ends meet. In a time of so much uncertainty, instability, and turmoil, ‘who cares about history’, right? Her outburst directed to her professor, in one of the scenes in the pilot episode demonstrated the reality that, to this day, remains, that even showing patriotism requires privileges. 

In the face of failing her class, she had no choice but to immerse herself in the novel. As she flipped through the pages of the lent out book from her professor, the clueless Klay, who fell asleep while reading, was sent to an otherworldly adventure that would not just shift her outlook on the past but also on how this mirrors to the still persisting struggles she sees in the present, and how this impacts that of the future. The young nursing student, who cannot see the relevance of the novel, woke up in a place that will teach her best more than anything.

Klay will then encounter not just the titular characters, Maria Clara (Julie Ann San Jose) and Ibarra (Dennis Trillo), but also personas whom the people of today think of as punchlines to a joke, therefore thinking it is insignificant in the story. One character who is known as a laughingstock at role plays is given depth and soul in this series, Sisa (Andrea Torres) is now more than just her mental illness but a clear representation of the slow, painful descent to doom of the Philippines in the hands of its oppressors.

Klay will be introduced to the dark times brought about by the Spanish colonization with very little knowledge of what awaits her and the characters. It may have been more than a century since the longest occupation, but the social issues faced back then give Klay a familiar picture of today’s society. 

With this, the fanta-series, at best, refreshes our psyche and does its best to shift perspectives, not just Klay’s but also the Filipinos who have regained access to these disregarded, almost-forgotten truths.

The series may be a good watch mainly because of the refreshing take, the saccharine rom-com troped employed on a side-character put to the fore, Fidel (David Licauco) with Klay, but it also brings the focus on the atrocities people, not just from the past, but also of the present, had toiled due to unfortunate circumstances in society. The only thing that divides the two eras is the time when these things happened but violence against women, gender inequality, an easily-corruptible justice system, power-tripping, injustices, and poverty or the unequal distribution of wealth, are still situations Filipinos have to deal with up to this day. 

Even in its pilot episode, it was already shown how harsh it was to live through that era. In one of the earlier scenes of the series, Padre Damaso (Tirso Cruz III), who is known for his abusive tendencies and epitomizes the friars or priests of that time, publicly humiliates a woman who is an alleged sex worker, or what they call during that time a mujer libre. He cuts her hair to warn other women not to engage in such acts. The character may or may not be an actual sex worker, but if she is to be brought to the modern world, she would still go through the same thing, just a different type of humiliation. 

In the next episodes, the series continues to unravel the unfortunate conditions people like Maria Clara and Ibarra had to live through. Of note, these are two people from moneyed families living a life of privilege but the lengths at which their lives were embroiled in a tangled web of pain and injustice, amplifies how such struggles are compounded for the powerless and economically challenged. Noli Me Tángere and El Filibusterismo may feature fictional characters, but they embody Rizal’s truths on the states of decay of the nation he saw was in need of change during his time.

These fictional books are more than just a story between Maria Clara and Ibarra, but a depiction of the many pressing issues and systemic problems that continue to plague the world we are living in to this day. And in today’s setting, the thing that makes the situations the past once experienced more dismaying is that Filipinos are already free from the colonizers, but why does the country still feel like it’s being held captive? 

With additional text by Leo Balante

Maria Clara at Ibarra is still streaming on Netflix Philippines and iWantTFC. Watch the trailer here: