“Sta. Niña”– a finalist in the New Breed full-length feature category of the Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival 2012 — is a family melodrama set a decade after the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo.
The story revolves around the people from the lahar-covered plains of a Pampanga town as they still cope up with the desolation brought about by the calamity, as well as their more current personal, familial, and economic struggles.
The film’s front story features a very straightforward narrative. It follows the life of Pol, a man working in a lahar-filled quarry, as he unexpectedly finds the lost remains of his two-year-old daughter intact even after 10 years of being submerged in lahar. Clearly showing no signs of decay in its small wooden coffin, the enclosed body becomes the townspeople’s object of worship. As the rumors about the unexplainable healings of the sick people visiting the uncorrupted corpse spread, Pol campaigns to have his daughter recognized by the Catholic Church to become a saint. However, the clergy refuses to acknowledge the lobbying of the country folks who firmly believe on the deceased child’s miraculous cures.
Beyond the unearthing of the well-preserved body, this religion-themed piece’s underlying story also reveals events that open up deep and old personal wounds for Pol and the people around him. He tries to deal with the old and persisting scandal of his bitter years-old conflict with his estranged wife and her vindictive mother. Apparently, she is his cousin, which readily led to the town’s conviction that their relationship was cursed. Ironically, these branded “sinners” become the parents of the so-called “miracle child.” Tables are turned as the past gossips hounding their incestuous relationship get covered up by the belief that their daughter is a soon-to-be saint, perhaps the youngest one in the world and the very first from their hometown.
Immaculately revisiting a very familiar territory, this glossy, sweeping, and heartfelt picture by Emmanuel Palo explores the prickly subject of people’s relationship with religion. It is crafted with passionate care as it presents a myriad of sub-stories that are aptly weaved into a tale about personal regret and redemption. With a firm grip on the material, the sensitive direction dramatizes a critical take on the nature of faith. The filmmaker knows when to leave things unanswered and when to reveal matters that are crucial to the narrative. The well-thought-of screenplay and the stark imagery empower the story’s hard look at the lives of those seeking for redemption and salvation.
Palo has a riveting way of providing an in-depth presentation of how people criticize sinners and how they associate and brand certain events as miraculous. Finding themselves at a point of intersection between doctrine and superstition, the characters are burdened by the weight of religious zeal. They are also driven to faith by circumstances. The storytelling really brings crucial emotions on screen as these devoted souls find hope in the middle of loss and displacement. It convincingly addresses the human being’s faith that needs a more tangible validation through images and events.
This bleak offering effectively examines the country’s general take on faith, sin, miracles, and holiness. It knows how to add layers of family drama and mystery to its religious backbone. From the direct dig about church donations to the masking of greed in politics, from the blatant hypocrisies of the self-proclaimed spiritual folks to the fanaticism on so-called prophets and spiritual symbols, this delicate piece finds humanity in tackling such issues without holding judgment toward people’s beliefs and practices.
Although generally admirable, the film’s structure feels clumsy and forced in certain parts. The disagreement scene between Pol’s ex-wife and his nun sister comes too raw to readily lead to these two women’s outright discord. The tale also succumbs to a few genre conventions that could have been mounted more effectively. It also entangles itself with its fumbling attempt in reaching for a neat ending. Nevertheless, the storytelling’s strengths still overpower its flaws.
Often beautifully staged, “Sta. Nina” shines with its exquisite cinematography. Its showcase of the grays of lahar-covered landscapes aptly evokes the vast emptiness the characters feel. The palette’s mostly muted colors reflect the despair and suppression lingering throughout the story. The Kapampangan Holy Week tradition depicting the crucifixion of Jesus manifests the feelings of understated confidence and glorious restraint. Sequences around religious places, areas for hearsays, and the town’s woodcarving business offer a culturally correct glimpse at the simple lives of those living in such a rural setting.
Naturally paced, the stark editing matches the unhurried stretches that the narrative needs to genuinely present the film’s more nuanced emotions. The flashback scenes in the latter part of the story are technically, thematically, and aesthetically meaningful. The crucifixion’s striking image of the broken coffin is breathtaking. The spare but haunting musical score renders a fittingly sorrowful mood to the undertakings.
The cast members, from the major to the minor roles, contribute well to the sensitively realized gravitas of the picture. There is enough soulfulness in how Coco Martin, portraying the role of Pol, moves around as a conflicted father, bitter husband, and dutiful grandson. His chemistry with Alessandra de Rossi, playing as his ex-wife Madel, delivers a quiet, down-to-earth strength for her character. Anita Linda as Pol’s charming but dementia-stricken grandmother and Irma Adlawan as Madel’s irksome and unforgiving mother are also worth noting for their exemplary acting performances.
Review also published at: BusinessWorld Weekender (2012)