The miracle of Himala

Posted on December 07, 2012

WHO killed Elsa?

The iconic still of Nora Aunor in Himala
To this day, people keep asking Himala screenwriter Ricky Lee who shot the film’s protagonist, the visionary Elsa. And to this day, students of film are still very interested in Himala (which tells the tale of a poor village which is turned upside down when one of its residents has a vision of the Virgin Mary ), even if it was shown for the first time at the 1982 Metro Manila Film Festival -- 30 long years ago.

You may have seen the Ishmael Bernal classic once or twice: in 1982, on TV, or during a retrospective of Bernal’s films. Somehow you see and learn new things and gain insights every time you watch it.

It was such a joy to see the digitally restored and remastered version of Himala during the by-invitation only celebrity premiere at SM Megamall and again at the special screening at Shangri-La Cineplex early this week.

In the book Sa Puso ng Himala, which was written and edited by Himala screenwriter Ricky Lee, Central Digital Lab CEO and President Manet Dayrit says that they devoted 700 hours of work on restoring Himala, including scanning, manual restoration, color correction and sound restoration.

Everyone raved about the (literal) clarity of the film. One can now see finer details like the faces of people, the nuances of the simplest of moves or gestures (of pigs even!), but most especially the most important asset of main actor Nora Aunor: her eyes.

Even in scenes when Aunor keeps still, her eyes say it all.

Those who’ve seen the movie again can’t help stop raving about the stampede scene towards the end of the film: how Bernal -- with the help of his crowd directors -- managed to handle 3,000 extras in sloping terrain in Suba Beach.

In 2008, Himala was awarded the Viewers’ Choice Award for Best Asia-Pacific Film of All Time by the Cable News Network and Asia Pacific Screen Awards (CNN APSA) in Australia.

It landed on the shortlist of 10 films based on the decision of a jury that included critics, industry insiders, top actors from Asia, and viewers of CNN.

Thousands of CNN visitors then voted for Himala on The Screening Room entertainment Web site. Starring Aunor as a provincial lass-turned-faith healer, the movie edged out legendary films Seven Samurai by Akira Kurosawa and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon by Ang Lee.

The restored version was recently screened at the prestigious 69th Venice Film Festival.

While criticized in its day -- when the norm was big, theatrical movements -- the film has passed the test of time.

People involved in the production say that if any miracle happened here, it is as to how the cast and crew managed to create a film of such grandiose a scale.

The budget of the film -- according to then Experimental Cinema of the Philippines (ECP) head Imee Marcos -- ballooned from P2.5 million to P2.7 million, quite a fortune in its time.

Hindi ko alam kung pa’no naming ginawa ’yon!” production designer-turned-actress Raquel Villavicencio exclaimed after seeing the film again in its new incarnation.

Equally interesting is Himala Ngayon, a documentary on the making of Himala the movie, which was directed by filmmaker-couple Keith Sicat and Sari Lluch Dalena.

It takes the viewer on a fascinating trip behind the scenes of the making of the film as seen through the eyes of screenwriter Lee, the cast, crew, and even the extras.

It shows Sari’s sister Kiri go back to the sites where the movie was filmed and shows how they look now: the house where the “tourists” used to stay, the dorm of the cast and crew -- even the swimming pool where they used to unwind after a day’s work -- and the site where the virgin appears to Elsa (and where she is eventually shot).

It is so much fun hearing the likes of 2nd assistant director, crowd director and actor Joel Lamangan talk about his “missions impossible” with Bernal as director; the intrigues, conflicts and other anecdotes from Gigi Duenas (the actress who played Nimia), actor Pen Medina (who played Pilo), and Villavicencio. But the most hilarious interviews (apart from Lamangan’s), are from then presidential daughter Imee Marcos who backed the film.

In a way, it’s a bit sad that Ishmael Bernal didn’t live to see his opus awarded anew nearly 30 years later and appreciated by a greater number of people.

But perhaps, Mr. Lee wrote it succinctly when in the script, Elsa tells Orly, the chronicler: “Kung wala na ang lahat, kung kalansay na lang tayo, ang matitira na lang ay ang sinasabi mong sining.” (When everything is over and we’re reduced to bones, what remains is what you call “art.”)

The high-definition (HD) version of Himala is showing until Dec. 12 at the SM Cinemas at SM North EDSA, SM Megamall, SM Manila, SM Southmall and Trinoma, and also at Robinsons Galleria, Powerplant, Sta. Lucia. Outside of Metro Manila, it is being shown in SM Cebu, SM Davao, and Gaisano Mall Davao.

The documentary Himala Ngayon will air tonight at 7 p.m. at the Cinema One cable channel, and on Dec. 9, 11 p.m., on ABS-CBN 2.