Prior to Marcos' declaration of Martial Law, the Philippines was in complete disarray. The regime, dictated by a culture of corruption and violence, would have students and other activists disappear, only to be discovered as victims of torture or worse, as dispatched bodies. However, in the Adorasyon convent, nestled deep within the forests of Rizal, news of these abuses are only heard from the occasional visits of family members or smuggled newspapers and transistor radios.
Kept away and protected from the harshness and temptations of the outside world by their dutiful mother superior (Fides Cuyugan-Asesnsio), the nuns enjoy the simple pleasures of a life lead by the daily routine of work and prayer. One night, newcomer Lourdes (Jodi Sta. Maria) gets raped by bandits on her way home with other external nun, Remy (Mylene Dizon), who makes use of the time outside the convent to join activists' meetings in town.
Vincent Sandoval, in Aparisyon
), tackles both sin and guilt in a setting that is supposed to be immune from them. The plot he conceives is simple and succinct, concerning a tragedy that would cause the secluded nuns to suffer contrition in the midst of their supposedly immaculate faith. Despite the sparseness of the narrative, Sandoval manages to examine the various sins that manifested because of the single violent act, purposely pitting the gravity of the sin's various proponents with the perdition they respectively seek.
Remy, for example, runs for her life while the bandits succeed in capturing Lourdes. On top of that, she introduced Lourdes to the activists' meetings which eventually led to their being unable to return to the convent before dark. Perdition for her is through Lourdes' forgiveness. In one extremely effective scene, Sandoval quietly captures Lourdes slapping Remy, pouring whatever anger she has for both Remy's carelessness and abandonment. Remy, aware of the extent of her sin, forces Lourdes to slap her more. The anger finally gives way to forgiveness, and the two nuns exchange a wordless but tearful embrace.
The other nuns' trespasses are more complicated. Their acts for redemption are more desperate. As it turns out, Sandoval's story is more complicated. The details he weaved into the plot give way to an examination of sin and guilt that exist within a grey area. There are sins of omission, of the mind. There are also sins shared by a community. Sandoval sprinkles his film with sinners suffering not from obvious guilt but questions whether decisions made for the supposed safety of all have made them co-perpetrators to a perpetually continuing wrong. Sandoval also maps the contagious quality of violence, how that one random act has caused an epidemic of wrongs. Sandoval breaks the myth by raising the humanity of those who exhibit divinity in our most imperfect world.
Fortunately, Sandoval does not gravitate mainly towards the cerebral aspect of his thesis. He adeptly communicates the consuming anguish of having fallen from grace. Sta. Maria, Dizon, and Raquel Villavicencio, who plays Vera, the mother superior's assistant, aptly inhabit their respective roles. Cuyugan-Asensio however is particularly impressive. She portrays the sudden mastermind of the film's biggest sin of omission with masterful clarity and expert care. In one scene, she retreats with impassioned shame when an elderly nun (Rustica Carpio) who has lost all memory mistakes her for the devil. Yet she never appears to be wholly deserving of the despair. She comes off as a hapless and pitiful victim, stripped of the pride and stature of morality her position and responsibility initially provided her.
Jay Abello's cinematography is sublime. He pits shadows with light, creating visuals that evoke the mental and moral conflicts surrounding the characters and the suffocation they suffer from being snatched of their prized innocence. Teresa Barrozo's music is never interruptive. It beckons only when needed, enunciating the already uneasy atmosphere dealt by Abello's arrestingly fractured images.
Sandoval's direction is undeniably sophisticated. He forgoes safety and ease for risks that pay off, creating a film that is also a devastating mood piece, a product of the cross between the immense possibilities of the imagination and experiences dealt by inherited history. At one point, he projects curated videos of Marcos regime strife over Sta. Maria's face as her character confesses her abandoning her vows to take part in an activists' meeting in town, allowing the audience to immediately understand the plight of her troubled conscience, which is now being divided between her religious vows and her responsibility for nation.
He constantly reminds the reality of the historic and political milieu, through real videos and photographs of real activists and their family that momentarily puncture the film's well-crafted illusion. In a way, without having to rely on cheap didactics, Sandoval warns his audience of the sins of apathy, that beyond the secluded convent that is cinema and its intoxicating pleasures and erstwhile depictions of truth filtered through a filmmaker's art is a world where people really have suffered and continue to suffer.
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