Set in the bleak plains of Pampanga, Emmanuel Palo's Sta. Nina
tells the story of Paulino (Coco Martin) who suddenly unearths the coffin of his daughter ten years after her death. Despite the length of time the coffin has been buried, her daughter remains uncorrupted, seemingly miraculously unchanged. Rumors of the marvel start to spread, causing several townspeople, including the province's sickly governor, to flock Paulino's house to be cured of their afflictions. More than that, the return of Paulino's daughter again unravels his sins from the past and his unfinished efforts for redemption.
Palo's crafting is exquisite. The film is beautifully photographed. The greys of the lahar-covered landscape evoke the very emptiness that confounds the people that manage to make a living despite the sudden desolation brought about by Mt. Pinatubo's eruption. When the film finally adopts colors, they are quiet and muted, very telling of the despair and the secrets that are supressed by circumstance.
The music is aptly spare and haunting. The film's pace is unhurried, allowing stretched moments of silence that allow for a clearer communication of many of the film's more nuanced emotions. The performances of the actors, more specifically Martin, Anita Linda as Paulino's dementia-afflicted grandmother, and Irma Adlawan as the unforgiving mother of Paulino's former lover, are especially fine.
However, the biggest triumph of the film is how it clearly portrayed a land and a people wanting of salvation despite the abundance of religion. Palo paints the Pampanga of his film as ridden with fake prophets and empty symbols, where statues and icons are peddled to the ignorantly faithful and every instance of the supernatural would be considered an act of God. He portrays his characters as especially burdened by the weight of religious zeal, more than willing to ride the wave of popular faith to be salvaged from the gravity of errors of the past.
There is actually more to the film than to pinpoint the blatant hypocrisies of the self-proclaimed religious. There is more to it than the overused dynamics of act and practice as displayed in various other films that criticize traditional Catholic rituals because they do not reflect the real religiosity of the people practicing them. The film is made from a perspective that does not hold judgment towards these beliefs and practices. It finds humanity in the very reason why these beliefs and practices exist and persist. Instead, it connects the outward and perhaps sham religiosity of these people with their inward insecurities because of their very own acknowledgment of their own sinful ways.
Sta. Nina depicts sinners suffering so much in such a judgmental world that the sudden appearance of the titular incorruptible saint becomes the only viable escape, and the price they would have to pay for a much-ambitioned redemption. Nothing is more human than survival in a society that is quick to pass guilt and slow to forgive and forget.
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