The intersection between miracle and superstition

Posted on September 28, 2012

Movie Review
Sta. Niña
Directed by Emmanuel Palo

STA. NIÑA -- a finalist in the New Breed full-length feature category of the Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival 2012 -- is a family melodrama set a decade after the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo. The story revolves around the people from the lahar-covered plains of a Pampanga town as they cope up with the desolation brought about by the calamity, as well as their more current personal, familial, and economic struggles.

A scene from Sta. Niña

The film’s front story features a very straightforward narrative. It follows the life of Pol, a man working in a lahar-filled quarry, as he unexpectedly finds the lost remains of his two-year-old daughter intact even after 10 years of being submerged in lahar. Clearly showing no signs of decay in its small wooden coffin, the body becomes the townspeople’s object of worship. As rumors about the unexplainable healings of sick people visiting the uncorrupted corpse spread, Pol campaigns to have his daughter recognized by the Catholic Church as a saint. However, the clergy refuse to acknowledge the lobbying of the country folks who firmly believe in the deceased child’s miraculous cures.

Beyond the unearthing of the well-preserved body, this religion-themed piece’s underlying story reveals events that open up old and deep personal wounds for Pol and the people around him. He tries to deal with the old and persisting scandal of his bitter years-old conflict with his estranged wife and her vindictive mother. Apparently, she is his cousin, which led to the town’s conviction that their relationship was cursed. Ironically, these branded “sinners” become the parents of the so-called “miracle child.” Tables are turned as the old gossip hounding their “incestuous” relationship get covered up by the belief that their daughter is a soon-to-be saint -- perhaps the youngest one in the world and the very first from their hometown.

Immaculately revisiting very familiar territory, this glossy, sweeping, and heartfelt picture by Emmanuel Palo explores the prickly subject of people’s relationship with religion. It is crafted with passionate care as it presents a myriad sub-stories that are woven into a tale of personal regret and redemption. With a firm grip on the material, the sensitive direction dramatizes a critical take on the nature of faith. The filmmaker knows when to leave things unanswered and when to reveal matters that are crucial to the narrative. The well-thought-of screenplay and stark imagery empower the story’s hard look at the lives of those seeking for redemption and salvation.

Palo has a riveting way of providing an in-depth presentation of how people criticize sinners and how they associate and brand certain events as miraculous. Finding themselves at a point of intersection between doctrine and superstition, the characters are burdened by the weight of religious zeal. They are also driven to faith by circumstances. The storytelling really brings crucial emotions on screen as these devoted souls find hope in the middle of loss and displacement. It convincingly addresses the human being’s faith that needs a more tangible validation through images and events.

This bleak offering effectively examines the country’s general take on faith, sin, miracles, and holiness. It knows how to add layers of family drama and mystery to its religious backbone. From the direct dig at church donations to the masking of greed in politics, from the blatant hypocrisies of self-proclaimed spiritual folks to the fanaticism around so-called prophets and spiritual symbols, this delicate piece finds the issues’s humanity without judging people’s beliefs and practices.

Although generally admirable, the film’s structure feels clumsy and forced in certain parts. The scene of disagreement between Pol’s ex-wife and his nun sister comes out too raw to readily lead to their outright discord. The tale also succumbs to a few genre conventions that could have been presented in better ways. It also entangles itself with its fumbling attempt at reaching for a neat ending. Nevertheless, the storytelling’s strengths overpower its flaws.

Often beautifully staged, Sta. Niña shines with its exquisite cinematography -- a showcase of the grays of lahar-covered landscapes which aptly evokes the vast emptiness the characters feel. The Kapampangan Holy Week tradition depicting the crucifixion of Jesus is a work of understated confidence and glorious restraint. Sequences set around religious places and the town’s woodcarving business offer a culturally correct glimpse at the simple lives in this rural setting.

Naturally paced, the stark editing matches the unhurried stretches that the narrative needs to genuinely present the film’s more nuanced emotions. The flashbacks in the latter part of the story are technically, thematically, and aesthetically meaningful. The striking image of the broken coffin is breathtaking. The spare, haunting musical score renders a fittingly sorrowful mood to the undertakings.

The cast members, from the major to the minor, contribute much to the sensitively realized gravitas of the picture. A soulful Coco Martin as Pol is successful playing a conflicted father, bitter husband, and dutiful grandson. Alessandra de Rossi, who plays his ex-wife Madel, delivers with a quiet, down-to-earth strength. Anita Linda as Pol’s charming but dementia-stricken grandmother and Irma Adlawan as Madel’s irksome and unforgiving mother are also worth noting for their exemplary acting.

MTRCB Rating of PG-13.