When I try to talk about Philippine movies, I always end up pining for its golden age: the 1970s to early 80’s. When a quiver of legendary directors emerged from the fumes of censorship and landed bull’s-eye to the local cinematic history. When films were not lax and niggard of thought-provoking themes and also challenged the political restiveness. When the silver screen is not a medium for superficial emotions but is a portrait capturing the gritty reality plaguing the society. Illiteracy, poverty, fanaticism; these are just some of the ugly truths in Ishmael Bernal’s HIMALA, making it even more compelling, important and resonant 33 years later.
Most would have probably first seen the parody before watching the actual film. A spoof of Nora Aunor’s iconic lines overshadows the reason why the film is adhered ‘classic’ in the first place. The digitally restored version I saw during the Holy Week left me pondering on how no different is the fictional town of Cupang to the modern-day society where venerations of religious and showbiz are disturbingly parallel. Is technology to blame for tying one’s faith into false beliefs and idols or maybe the lack of it makes one susceptible to gullibility? Media has a part to play in both the old and new testaments of HIMALA’s undeniable social commentary. It remains chilling and provocative of its taboo themes (to be discussed later on). HIMALA doesn’t play complex mind games but is straight-forward amidst the ambiguity shrouding it. The classic proffers the mutually exclusive ‘believe it or not’ and the final answer is a radical observation of the self-destructive ways the society beguiles itself.
Elsa (Aunor) is discovered while in her iconic pose.
Shot in the impeccably chosen milieu of Ilocos Norte, HIMALA immerses in its eerie setting; the crude and cursed fictional town of Cupang. As the townsmen scuttled during the solar eclipse, it unveiled a young woman fervently praying and unfaltering in the wicked windiness of the sandy hills. Elsa confessed to her adoptive mother (Vangie Labanan) and town priest (Joel Lamangan) that the Virgin Mary appeared to her. Soon, she amasses her disciples and believers physically and spiritually ailing. Elsa’s miraculous claims rejuvenated the moribund Cupang, whose commercial activities sparked from religious merchandises to the trade of flesh. Yet Elsa was not powerful enough to contain an epidemic and save a friend. As the town clamors the streak of misfortunes following her absence, Elsa returns but is unbidden of her last words – the truth.
Elsa while healing one of the many miracle seekers.
There are two sides of the story in HIMALA that makes it a fascinating tug-of-war of truth. On one hand, the film’s mystery is not rooted at the strange locale but in Elsa, who dug her status from underdog to the town’s superstar (pun intended). Elsa sees the Marian apparition at the same spot where she was abandoned as a baby. The uncanny similarity, along with her ill-reputation as a slow-witted, unattractive and unwanted bastard, makes her a dramatic choice for divine intervention. More than her naïve facade, Aunor conveys Elsa’s conviction expertly with her signature expressive eyes. But Elsa’s uncharacteristically indulging smile at the camera during her healing raises suspicion. While Elsa’s character is established on the townsmen’s hearsays, a childhood friend disclosed how Elsa is self-aware and clever with self-preserving determination. Could it be Elsa lied about the Virgin Mary’s appearance? Did she trick the townsmen to gain their attention and adoration? With the situation getting uncontrollable, Elsa’s eventual death was tragic but operatic, inadvertently consistent to the act she could be pulling off. Despite the tons of holy water she douses (and her disciples sell), the crowd of desperate cases are perpetually thirsty that they become a wildfire feeding on misaligned faith.
The restless crowd waiting for Elsa
The whirlwind of strange events in Cupang revealed the more curious case of its people, whose desolate condition make them a fitting case study of a fanaticized society clinging on unproven truths based on legend (the curse of the banished leper) and religion (Elsa’s alleged miracles). HIMALA doesn’t tow a prickly debate on Roman Catholicism; it even isolates the Church through the impersonal views of the town priest. Some may say that HIMALA attacks religious fanaticism but in my opinion, it portrays how the society can irrationally react to bizarre events that only require the tricky virtue of faith. The film is uniquely critical on how this false belief can transform into an overwhelming force to be feared at. The townsmen do not anymore adore the Virgin Mary through Elsa; instead they direct their faith at her and become insatiable. To see the sea of believers zealously (and desperately) flocked at the barren hills as Elsa’s audience is daunting (I remain anxious by the river of prayer after her assassination). Special nod goes to Lamangan who is also the film’s casting and crowd director in gathering Elsa’s vast believers of various deformities, elderliness and sickness (the power of bit players!). Dearth in the aspects of livelihood and knowledge could have baited the people to their unguarded fanaticism but as affluent individuals join them, it becomes clear that faith is unbounded and malleable. It is the second most unrequited piece of one’s soul (next to love), easy to give and difficult to prove. HIMALA presents how faith can be distorted to questionable fervor when religion is befuddled with irrationality. At the end, it’s just a matter of perception.
The role of media in adding fuel to the fire on Elsa’s alleged miracles reflects the sensationalistic nature of journalism. But more consciously, HIMALA demonstrates how it is also the caretaker of truth, through Orly (Spanky Manikan). Keeping his objectivity intact, he relies on the truth seen behind the camera but an unexpected footage led him to spare Elsa from the controversy. By abandoning such shocking angle for his documentary, he settled on filming Elsa’s last breath but the future of his output was unclear. The film also touches numerous taboos such as illegitimacy (Elsa’s backstory), consensual intercourse, suicide and other crimes, magic and prostitution. The last two were incorporated in Nimia (Gigi Dueñas) who was treated as outcast upon her return to Cupang since it was implied that she worked in a cabaret. She opened her own club, only to be closed by Elsa’s disciples.
Elsa’s dramatic monologue
In a more complete and complex picture, HIMALA depicts a society committing a paradox on its beliefs that are grounded but not validated by religion. It may have initially challenged the conservative thinking of the 80’s, but thirty years forward, HIMALA’s relevance is untainted and heralded in the passing years. It remains as one of the few films that unflinchingly reveals the society as a force to reckon with, in this case driven by the blinding power of faith. Normally treated as a backdrop, the general public takes center stage on their baffling devotion to Elsa, who has been the instrument in unleashing the true miracle only the masses can conjure.