Monday, August 14, 2017

New Filipino Cinema ’17: Seklusyon

The training for these post-war Filipino priests is almost like a spiritual Fear Factor. For seven days, they will be sequestered in a remote villa to confront their inner and outer demons. The latter are very real to these novices. As if the sink-or-swim practice were not problematic enough, a young girl considered either a healer or a false prophet has been remanded to the manse for her protection. Unfortunately, nobody can protect the novices from the temptation and torment that follows in Erik Matti’s Seklusyon (trailer here), which screens during the annual New Filipino Cinema series at the Yerba Buena Arts Center.

Miguel is a deacon about to start the seven days of isolated contemplation that will proceed his ordination. He still feels guilty over something from his previous life, but he will not reveal it to his confessor. All four novices harbor secret sins that the evil agency in question will exploit.

Meanwhile, Padre Ricardo has been dispatched to investigate the young Anghela Sta. Ana, whom many revere as a living saint. Her healing powers sure look genuine, but something about her arouses the suspicions of the jaded war veteran. When Sta. Ana’s parents are violently murdered (odd that she couldn’t heal them, right?), the good Father will have to shift his focus to Sister Cecilia, her mysterious protector. In what seems like a spectacularly bad decision, regardless of what you might believe, the Bishop sends Sta. Ana and Sister Cecilia to the seclusion villa for safe keeping.  Needless to say, their presence is quite the distraction.

While it is initially unclear whether Sta. Ana is a savior or demon, the novices are still in for it either way, because this is a horror movie. Even though it is set in the post-war Philippines, Nathaniel Hawthorne could have sniffed out the sulfuric evil one right away. Indeed, this slow-burning tale of guilt and sin shares a distant kinship with his more sinister tales, particularly “Young Goodman Brown,” in which the infernal masquerades as the innocent.

Matti skillfully creates a mood of mounting dread and masterfully sets the ominous mise-en-scene. However, the atmospheric moodiness can be too much of a good thing, enveloping the cast like a fog. Although they are played by some highly recognizable Philippine actors, it is a bit of a challenge to keep all four novices straight. In contrast, Padre Ricardo and Sister Cecilia are highly compelling characters, thanks to their intriguing backstories and the rigorously disciplined performances of Neil Ryan Sese and Phoebe Walker. Likewise, young Rhed Bustamante is pretty incredible as Anghela Sta. Ana, or whoever she might be.

When Seklusyon really gets deep into the brimstone, its unsettling imagery recalls The Omen franchise and Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s Mother Joan of the Angels, which is high praise indeed. It is the sort of film whose ending makes everything that came before seem creepier in retrospect. (For those who see it, this Marist Brother’s insightful analysis will further your appreciation, but it is filled with spoilers.) Ultimately, it is quite refreshing to see a horror film that prioritizes symbolism over special effects. Recommended for fans of religious-themed supernatural horror, Seklusyon screens this Friday (8/18) and Thursday the 31st, as part of New Filipino Cinema 2017 at the YBCA. Those in San Francisco might consider checking out the sunny but angsty Apocalypse Child this Friday, as well.