Saturday, October 18, 2008

Santa Santita (Magdalena, Laurice Guillen, 2004)


Laurice Guillen's Santa Santita (Magdalena, 2004) is a surprisingly strong Filipino film on faith; and unlike Ishmael Bernal's Himala (Miracle, 1982)--possibly Philippine cinema's most memorable (and skeptical) take on a favorite and oft-considered subject--it's firmly on the side of believers.

It's the story of Malen (former child star Angelica Panganiban, now grown up, and I mean grown), the skeptical daughter of Chayong (Hilda Koronel), a professional intercessor, or someone who prays on behalf of churchgoers in exchange for their kind donation. Malen doesn't believe in all that; she'd rather spend time with Mike (Jericho Rosales), who drives rich foreigners around for a fee, and for a fee renders services above and beyond the originally agreed upon employment contract.

Credits name three people who wrote the screenplay: Jerry Gracio (who's also responsible for the story), Michiko Yamamoto, Juan Feleo (better known as Johnny Delgado, Guillen's husband). I'd love to know the script's evolution--the script for Santa Santita had been bouncing around for some time; when Guillen finally found funding from Unitel to make the picture she might have felt the script needed polishing, hence the presence of Ms. Yamamoto's name in the credits. Ms. Yamamoto through a handful of films (Magnifico (2003), Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros, 2006), among others) has proven to be the most consistently skillful writer in the local industry; just seeing her name in the opening credits is a guarantee that the picture will at least be solidly, sensibly written.

Delgado's inclusion is more mysterious--did he, perhaps, upon reading the rewrite, find it necessary to add to the script? Perhaps the character of the priest (played by Delgado himself), who seems to stay in the sidelines and is interestingly wrought and executed (there's a scene where Delgado simply sits by Malen's side as she talks, saying nothing, yet somehow the actor manages to slip the entire scene into his pocket and walk away) but seems mostly there to comment on the action from the perspective of a thoughtful, ultimately faithful observer.

The film doesn't have the powerfully caustic despair of Himala; it doesn't have relentlessly questioning philosophical spirit of Lav Diaz's films (which are all about the Filipino's search for a stubbornly silent and seemingly absent God). In some ways it bears striking resemblance to Ang Huling Birhen sa Lupa (The Last Virgin, 2003), an intriguingly written (by Racquel Villavicencio) if inconsistently acted and directed film, about a woman faking her spirituality suddenly confronted with the possibility of the real thing.

What is the film trying to say, about God and matters miraculous? That the power to heal does not come with warranties of any kind--the opposite, if anything; that even the most wretched, least pious of creatures are susceptible to belief, conversion, even redemption; that God's ways are at times mysterious, even terrible to behold. Not the most original of statements, but perhaps where Guillen excels is in the visual power and grace and sensuality she brings to the heart of this very Filipino matter. From the rather slim evidence found in her somewhat prolific output (I'm thinking of her startlingly assured first feature Kasal? (Marriage? 1980), her internationally renowned Salome (1981), her great erotic thriller Init sa Magdamag (Midnight Passion, 1983), her interestingly nuanced AIDs drama Dahil Mahal Kita (Because I Love You, 1993), and bits and pieces of her recent Tanging Yaman (A Change of Heart, 2000) and American Adobo (2001)), Guillen may well be the finest woman filmmaker in the Philippines, arguably one of the finest Filipino filmmakers, period.

If that sounds like damning with faint praise, I'd like to point out that filmmakers have it hard in the Philippines, women filmmakers far more so, and that consistency of output is something even Lino Brocka himself couldn't quite manage (I'd say he has five great, maybe ten or so good, out of a total output of sixty plus films).

There's still evidence of that power, grace, sensuality, even this late in her career, even working in the to my mind still inferior medium of digital cinema. A woman walking, feeling faint, the camera focused on her white umbrella as it swings down and drops, slowly spinning, to the street; Malen in shadows listening to Mike over the cellphone, fascinated as temptation whispers in her ear; Malen again, lying on bed as the camera looks down at her, her eyes glazed with lust--Mike covers her, and in the deep red light we see a gigantic snake tattoo glistening on his back. The procession of the Black Nazarene in Quiapo, so vividly filmed by Brocka for the opening of his Bona (1980), is here definitively, triumphantly re-staged by Guillen--in amber tones and extreme long shot--as an overwhelming, even terrifying, spectacle, an outpouring of the faithful resembling an armada of driver ants sweeping through an urban jungle, the roar of the crowd like the roar of some multi-throated creature unleashed from its cave.

There are noticeable flaws, other than sins of omission. I've mentioned how the exiled priest subplot seems tacked on (albeit in a to my mind interesting manner); another subplot, of the son of a political figure shot and killed, is clumsily yet cleverly inserted (clumsy in that the subplot has to rely on an unheard radio announcement to keep us informed; clever in that it's casually enough presented one can miss it if one's not paying attention). The dramatic appearance of the police at one point seems too implausibly timed (how would they know where to find their intended?).

Still! A strong film on faith, easily one of Guillen's best recent works, and one of the better Filipino films to come out in the past few years.

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