Film Diary: “The Trial”

The Trial is an intimate and judicious family-legal drama that successfully knots its bigger themes of love, trust and forgiveness, despite a safe treatment of its delicate subject matter.

Read at your own risk.

Movie Poster

In Star Cinema’s annual cinematic slate which is often dominated by the cross pollination of romance, comedy, horror and melodrama, a wildflower is sporadically plucked from the production company’s creative garden. It may not yield the same as the commercial returns of its honeyed genres but Star Cinema’s venture to mature, more thought-provoking films is a much-awaited reward to its patient and more sensible viewers. Last year it got into serious business in ‘On The Job’, a rare action-thriller that was timely of the current political landscape and compelling on the intertwined narratives of its mentor-mentee relationships. This year, audience takes the witness stand as the legitimacy of the story of a mentally challenged man accused of rape is scrutinized in Chito S. Roño’s “The Trial”.

Bessy (Jessy Mendiola) is John Lloyd Cruz’s (Ronald) teacher in ‘The Trial’.

As the film slowly unravels, The Trial does not only become a showcase for John Lloyd Cruz’s sympathetic portrayal of the man on the pit of controversy but it opens to a wider perspective of how relationships are tested through the intersected story line of Richard Gomez and Gretchen Barretto. Theirs maybe the more familiar between the two stories but Julian and Amanda’s marital breakdown (and eventual reconciliation) were the more powerful, especially during the devastating memories of their lost son who bridges them to the faulty Ronald. Prickly as I am on how myopic the characters are tied to the conflict (especially in an ensemble cast), The Trial takes time in establishing everyone’s story and glides to scenes that are anchored on their motivations revealed by flashbacks. For instance, rather than immediately presenting Amanda as Ronald’s ally, she is first seen as the friend of Bessy’s (Jessy Mendiola) aunt who persuaded Amanda to observe Ronald and make him admit his crime through her profession as a developmental psychologist. The scene segues to Ronald telling his parents that he saw Amanda prior to their first meeting, until he successfully retrieved a memorabilia that unlocks the deeper connection between them.

Slow burning but revealing, The Trial stirs to a straight-forward narrative, occasional curbing on salient sentimentality that doesn’t reduce the material to melodrama. The tropes of marriage on the rocks and a withdrawn mother are stale ingredients on other dramas but The Trial makes them purposeful as it explores the interconnectedness of its characters under the umbrella of its bigger theme. Similar on how the court room aims to dissect the two sides of truths, the films slices the many layers of its characters, enabling viewers to discern their respective decisions. Ricardo Lee’s screenplay does not lose its translation on Chito S. Roño’s placid direction (as opposed to Joel Lamangan’s visual disconnect of “Hustisya”). The director doesn’t overplay the most dramatic crescendos, except a bungled attempt on the parallel sequences between Amanda and Ronald; and Julian and Ronald’s parents. Nevertheless, the film’s tranquil atmosphere is consistent from start to finish, along with sprinkled pints of humor that somehow became inherent to the story.

Gretchen Barretto as Amanda who becomes Ronald’s pseudo-psychologist in ‘The Trial’.

The Trial is most buzzed on Cruz’s portrayal of a mentally challenged character which is more high-functioning than Gerald Anderson’s ‘Budoy’. Cruz deftly blends Ronald’s docility, comprehension and confusion but what I found more interesting was his subjugation to violence. Gomez draws from his commanding physicality the armor of Attorney Julian but Barretto bears the more emotional gravitas, employing grace and regret as a mother who wants to amend her shortcomings. Reunited with their ‘Maria Mercedez’ director, Mendiola and Vivian Velez are restrained as their characters’ moral intentions are also in question. Enrique Gil once again becomes the forbearer of the Generation Y as Julian and Amanda’s departed son, using technology to preserve (heart-breaking) memories, similar to his lead role in ‘She’s The One’. Capping the ensemble cast are Sylvia Sanchez and Vince De Jesus as Ronald’s dysfunctional parents whose reversed gender roles find the film’s light moments but also the earnest ones.

But is the controversial theme legitimately addressed?

With a wholesome cast in a controversial subject matter, The Trial becomes a litmus test on how a mainstream film can deliver a mature theme and if the critical and commercial responses would be favorable. Despite the slights of violence, raw language, and sexual references, the film is a wholly family drama that doesn’t shy away from the taboo. Unlike the other dramas that would rather capture the provocativeness of carnal and adulterous desires, The Trial aims to crack the fragility of human relationships and how it can be strengthened again. An after-thought, however, is how the film neutrally addressed its criminal case of rape; that it felt too safe mainly because its wholesome cast is already a takeaway that The Trial would not trudge to darker waters. But there’s nothing wrong in being safe and the film did not apprehensively treat its subject matter. The Trial knows its boundaries as a family drama, not a criminal drama. I admit that despite my satisfaction, I would have wanted the film to explore the grim consequences of the alleged crime (since it’s already in the unchartered territory), but disputably, an addition of violence, sex or vulgarity could not make its values any better.

There’s another unspoken theme that The Trial teases in its opening and closing scene that fortifies its hold as family drama: the importance of parenting. Ronald moonlights as a Grade 7 student but he is one of the school’s gardeners. His monologue of how he tends to his plants foreshadows the relationship of the sons and daughter to their respective parents and guardian in the film. Like a delicate flower, Ronald’s needs are special that is arguably not met by his parents. Bessy is merely treated as an ornament by her selfish aunt. And Martin, despite having a perfect life, is overlooked by his parents, just like a pretty flower drowned in the vast greenness amidst his frequent call of attention.

It’s underwhelming that we have to wait until next year to see Star Cinema’s next wildflower. Through ‘On The Job’ and ‘The Trial’, mainstream films are slowly warming up on exploring the grayness of morality rather than being soaked in red (be it love or blood, depending on the perennial genres). The Trial is a satisfactory return to form of modern family drama that still has a lot to improve on, particularly crossing unconventional narratives and more resonant topics. The film may not dared to challenge itself more on the theme but it knows its boundaries. I do look forward to more mature subject matters that don’t necessarily book shock value to make it controversial and is conscious enough to know the message it wants to send without the expense of its narrative. Until then, see you in court.

Quotable lines:

Hindi moving on ‘yun. Nililibing mo lang ang puso mo ng buhay.” – Amanda

Ronald, ang mundong ito ay hindi para sa atin. Para sa matatalino, sa malalakas. Hindi para sa atin.” – Bessy

The Trial

Produced by: Star Cinema

Release date: October 25, 2014

Review: 3.5/5.0

Photos grabbed from Rappler, The Daily Pedia, The Trial FB page