HIMALA (1982)

  • Director: Ishmael Bernal
  • Writer: Ricky Lee
  • Starring: Nora Aunor, Spanky Manikan, Laura Centeno, Ama Quiambo, Veronica Palileo, Gigi Duenas, Vangie Labalan, and Ben Almeda
  • Accolades: Best Picture at 1982 Metro Manila Film Festival, shown at Berlin, Chicago, Venice, and Tokyo Film Festivals
  • Where to Watch: Rent or buy on Amazon Video or AppleTV

To date the majority of films we’ve featured here are American, but for reasons that I am not clear on but disinclined to argue with, we have quite a few readers of the blog from the Philippines. At least, if the statistics I’m getting via WordPress are to be taken at face value. I realized, considering this, that I have never actually seen a Filipino film, and had the idea to feature one on this blog. There was only one movie I found consistently listed among the best Filipino movies that is not from the last twenty years, and it is 1982’s Himala (“Miracle” in the Tagalog language). It was the first Filipino movie to successfully make the rounds of the major international film festivals, and the only one to make the short list when the Asia Pacific Film Awards decided to name the best Asian films of all time. Note that, as usual, there are spoilers for any plot twists herein.

I have to say, especially coming in entirely cold as I did, Himala is something of a remarkable achievement. It was shot in a remote village in the far northern province of Iloco Norte in just three weeks. It became the highest grossing movie of the 1980s in the Philippines, making back many times its budget. The main character, Elsa (no relation to the Disney princess, though I note many parallels in their stories), is played by Nora Aunor, who started her career as a pop star but went on to a long and acclaimed acting career. The Hollywood Reporter recently called her the “grand dame of Philippines cinema.” A lot of the emotional and, heck, plot information of Himala is conveyed just by her face, without any further dialogue. She is doing some really crazy good acting here.

The movie takes place in a remote, poor village set against a dusty, empty, desert landscape, in the midst of a drought. In the village, there seems to be trash everywhere, all the time. Many parts of the Philippines are beautiful, but this is the most Third World of environments that you’ll see in a movie. Elsa is a teenage girl who goes to the top of a hill topped with a single, bare tree and claims to have seen an image of the Virgin Mary during an eclipse. This part is played entirely in close-up on Elsa’s face, and the audience is never quite meant to know what actually happened. She tells her adoptive mother, and then a rumor starts that Elsa has gained miraculous healing powers. Things spin rather impressively out of control. Not half an hour into this movie, there is a bus riding around the desert with a huge banner that just says “ELSA LOVES YOU.”

Can Elsa actually heal anybody? We never get a definitive yes or no (Elsa says at the end she never did, but I’m not sure that either I or the movie actually believe her). She goes along with all the hubbub, but seems pushed along by the people around her. The movie is at least as much about the town as it is about her. A “cabaret” (read brothel) opens to cater to the tourists. The main street is lined with stalls selling holy water and “Elsa loves you” t-shirts. The mayor starts out looking affable but bored, confesses in the middle of the film that the town suddenly has “crime and drugs,” and then at the end we see him telling a policeman to “arrest anyone who criticizes the government, or me.”

The movie is just as interested in Elsa’s friends, and how they react to a girl they grew up with suddenly being treated as a saint, as it is in her. Chayong (Laura Centeno) becomes perhaps Elsa’s closest disciple, though she still meets up with her boyfriend behind the house for stolen kisses while Elsa is praying up front. Nimia (Gigi Duenas) opens and runs the cabaret, and at one point tries to get Elsa to admit she was hallucinating, “like I do when I’m stoned.” A third friend, Sepa (Ama Quiambo) goes along with matters from the sidelines until her two sons get sick in a cholera epidemic that strikes the town, possibly caused by overcrowding from tourists.

As it turns out, Elsa is entirely powerless against cholera, and Sepa’s two sons die. Her followers leave, and we gradually figure out Elsa is pregnant. In fact, she and Chayong were raped by “drugged youths from Manila” while praying alone. No one from Manila would be in this town if not for Elsa. We see this from a distance, not played for shock value. Chayong suddenly kills herself, and Elsa tells her remaining disciples she is done healing people. But then there is a sudden, torrential downpour, the first in years. Elsa agrees to appear pubicly again. In front of hundreds of people at the tree where she claimed to have her vision, she gives a speech where her facade finally breaks. “There is no miracle! Miracles are in people’s hearts, in all our hearts! We are the ones who make miracles! We are the ones who make curses, and gods…”

In the middle of this, someone in the crowd suddenly shoots Elsa. We never see who. There is a mass panic, people are trampled. Elsa dies and her body is carried down the hill by the crowd (some still wearing “Elsa Loves You” t-shirts), in a pose like Jesus on the cross. Sepa announces that Elsa is a saint now and, while some of the townspeople look on, incredulous, the remaining crowd starts crawling back up the hill on their knees, praying.

I describe this big last scene in detail because I’ve never seen anything quite like it in a “western” movie. The filmmakers used hundreds of extras and did the whole thing in one take with a bunch of cameras. It captures completely the feeling of being in a crowd that has taken on a life of its own, that no longer values individuals inside it or their lives, that isn’t operating according to logic. Another thing this movie captures completely is the feeling of living somewhere where you know nothing will ever happen, then it does, and there are so many bad things that come along with the good. The village at the beginning of the story is basically nowhere, and nobody seems particularly happy, but they are there living their lives. Nobody was murdered, or killed themselves, nor was there mass death from infectious diseases brought by outsiders or, for that matter, prostitution. When Elsa sees the Virgin, she forcibly brings her village into the wider world all at once, and the results are catastrophic, as they have been in so many places.

While the movie is very professionally made, it does feel slightly alien to a frequenter of American multiplexes, for more reasons than just the setting. Director Ishmael Bernal cuts from scene to scene abruptly, at moments you’re not expecting. Rather than wrapping itself in Elsa’s point of view, which would be a very different story, it keeps at a distance from her. Not until right at the end does she ever say what she’s really thinking. Rather, Bernal’s camera seems to cut into moments from this town, giving us a more wide-ranging picture of how this one unexplained event transforms the village completely. I’m writing this review with the newly-released Enola Holmes playing in the background, and the scenes follow one from the other using traditional cinematic language, where they lead into each other at least thematically, if not actually. It’s an entirely different language of filmmaking than that which Bernal uses in Himala, but they both work.

Though Himala is set in a remote corner of the world, it is much better made than we might assume from our unconscious prejudices. The acting is universally very good, and that final sequence is on another level from what most mainstream Hollywood could possibly hope to produce. Having recently seen Robert Altman’s Nashville, I was struck, in fact, by the similarities of the endings of the two movies, certainly in a visual sense. Both involve the assassination of a young woman in a white dress while she stands on a stage, followed by her being carried away, limp, red stains showing on her dress. But that’s where the similarities end. While in Nashville, life went on, no matter what, but in Elsa’s village, life is never going to be the same.

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