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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Thursday, December 29, 2016

entry arrow4:15 PM | The Beguilement of Evil

To understand better Erik Matti’s Seklusyon (2016) [trailer here], and to see what could have been, one has to go back to an earlier work, a short film he released in 2012 titled Vesuvius. [Watch it here.] In that fantastic film, we follow a put-upon man played with a nuanced and creepy stillness by Gio Alvarez. By day, he sells packed lunches to harried office workers, and by night, he prepares the next day’s set meals, takes care of an invalid mother, and when the darkness of the evening turns ripe, entertains vivid visions of the Virgin Mary coming to him in immense bright light — all to exhort him to commit a string of brutal murders. It’s a frightening serial killer movie with a gripping Catholic angle, beautifully shot by Matti and structured with the usual muscular dexterity of a Michiko Yamamoto screenplay. Vesuvius devilishly plays for us the notion that the Devil has immense powers, that it can in fact take the shape of holy icons to push us further into the embrace of evil. Be careful what you believe, Matti tells us, our fervent faiths are not guarantees to safeguard us from false prophets.

Seklusyon borrows many visual elements from Vesuvius, and takes further its theme and expands it to feature-length narrative — but I am not sure it exceeds the gripping effectiveness of the older, and shorter, film, which was not only truly terrifying, it also made us question the tenets of faith we hold sacrosanct. As written by Anton C. Santamaria, Seklusyon is beautiful to look at and works for the most part, but it is ultimately unsatisfying.

What else can you say about a film you earnestly root for, but remains saddled with so much unignited potential? Can one forgive the lack of tension or the absence of burrowing terror, settling instead on the film’s obvious message about faith and deception to lift a soggy script? You can tell by the way some people have called the film a “Catholic thriller,” and others a “think piece.” They are too kind, but they are also, in a sense, right. I think they only mean to describe how less than visceral the film ultimately is, and it shouldn’t have been. It could indeed have been a devouring horror as well as a compelling thesis about certain social issues that ail us.

I want it to succeed beyond what it has ended up achieving for real, because it is a gorgeously wrought film. Its production design — for a film set in 1947 — is meticulous and rich. Its cinematography is a masterwork and captures so well the unholy atmosphere its story demands to wallow in.

And the material itself is golden: we already know that horror overloaded with Catholic imagery is a staple of the genre that can go so eerily right. One only has to consider the staying power of such classics as The Exorcist or The Omen or The Exorcism of Emily Rose to note the easy transfer between sacred images to icons of dread. Matti himself proved that so well in Vesuvius.

So what happened? Is it the acting? (Could be.)

Is it the story? But the premise of the plot is already quite tantalising. In the aftermath of World War II, four young deacons of the church (played by Ronnie Alonte, Dominic Roque, John Vic De Guzman, and J.R. Versales) find themselves in a hidden retreat deep in the Philippine countrysides, there to endure seven days of seclusion in a barricaded house, where they could try to withstand the worst of demonic temptations and visions before they could finally be ordained as priests. (Apparently this used to be a common practice for those being initiated into the priesthood, long since discontinued.)

In a parallel story, another priest (played by Neil Ryan Sese) investigates the healing powers of Anghela, a young girl (played with incredible panache by Rhed Bustamante) under the protection and guidance of Sister Cecilia (played by Phoebe Walker), a nun with a mysterious and troubled past. Sese’s Father Ricardo wants to know whether the girl indeed has genuine Divine gifts enough for the church to declare her a living saint.

The two threads collide by the start of the second act, where the sins of the young would-be priests manifest themselves as terrifying visions — perhaps being exacerbated by the presence of Sister Cecilia, and perhaps needing the miraculous intercession of Angelha.

In the maelstrom of hellish visions and subsequent betrayals, especially in the third act, the film gradually falls apart: it dismisses too easily important elements of the story we have been made to invest in, and refuses to expound on others that would have shed light to the needless complexities it finds itself spouting. It is a messy screenplay. (That it won Best Screenplay is the sole enigma of the MMFF Awards Night.)

But even then, Matti is in control of his images. He is a fantastic visual director, and we have seen what beautiful cinema he could do over the years, selling us the premise of voyeurism in Scorpio Nights 2, or lovelorn romance in Sa Huling Paghihintay, or angsty sex work in Prosti, or Tsinoy melodrama in Mano Po 2, or feisty ghetto superheroes in Gagamboy by virtue of beautiful images alone. His collaboration with Yamamoto, however, gave his beautiful images the grace of beautiful structure, resulting in such rich and resonant works as On the Job, Tiktik: The Aswang Chronicles, Honor Thy Father, and of course Vesuvius. I wish that collaboration continued on in Seklusyon. It would have probably elevated the film from something we merely admire, to something that we believe slays both our minds and hearts, terrorizing us and thrilling our sensibilities at the same time.

[The film is not being screened in Dumaguete]


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