The parched and dusty sprawl in the sleepy town of Bacolor reflects the moral stagnation that has characterized Pol Mungcal’s life in the last ten years since his two-year old daughter Marikit died from meningitis. His abode is a desolate landscape of dust, mud and haze. And he subsists by quarrying the ravages of laharland. One fateful day, children unwittingly exhume the coffin that bears Marikit’s corpse. What’s baffling? The child looks well preserved and doesn’t show signs of decay.
With steadfast resolve, Pol (Coco Martin) embraces the coffin and singlehandedly takes his “child” back to town. His thoughts are a flurry of suppositions. This can’t be mere accident. It has to mean something.
Pol lives with a demented, albeit burdensome grandmother, Lola Bining (Anita Linda), in an unfinished house. Madel (Alessandra de Rossi), Marikit’s mother and Pol’s cousin, has long abandoned Pol for a life of less scrutiny by morally supercilious and economically gaunt townsfolk. Pol even turned his back sculpting religious artifacts out of wood. For someone who has lost so much from his missteps in the past, Pol is suddenly seized by a sense of hope. Could Marikit be his ticket to redemption?
News spreads like wildfire. Soon people from the hinterlands visit to witness a miracle; something that hardly comes to an impoverished town gripped by apathy. People seem to hold on to faith in times of desperation. The crowd outside Pol’s home grows by the day. The ailing governor even drops by, hoping there’s cure for his cirrhosis. Even the media’s been poking its ugly head. When Madel gets wind of this, she tells Pol to just bury their daughter, but he wouldn't budge. Everyone believes. But the church. After all, not a long time ago, Melchor, a young man who allegedly saw the Virgin Mary, turned out to be a hoax. These days, Melchor is a crossdressing person named Zora. He is reviled by his neighbors and “sinusuka ng simbahan”. People are understandably more circumspect.
Then ailing people start getting healed. Lola Bining regains her lucidity. The governor’s cirrhosis disappears. Ben, the dysuric neighbor, can urinate with ease. His financially struggling – and very pregnant wife Malou – wins lottery. A child’s neck mass recedes. Who can turn their back on this spate of miracles? The town experiences resurgence of religious conviction. Pol now wants his daughter’s corpse – and accompanying wooden sculptures - be blessed and proclaimed a saint. The believers soon organize a “lakbayan” (a procession) to rally for Marikit’s sainthood in front of the Bishop. What becomes of Pol, Madel. Lola Bining, and the hundreds of faithful? Is Marikit really miraculous? Or will she turn out to be another ruse like Zora?
Director Emmanuel Palo’s “Sta. Nina” rankles with an immersive premise that hooks you tightly into its exposition. In fact, the story telling is grandiose; it reminds you of the narrative dissertation of old classics like Bernal’s “Himala”. There’s diligent care in the build-up of characters; each one subsumed by transpicuous insight. This is evident in the dynamics of relationship among Pol, Madel, Sister Josie (Angel Aquino as Pol’s sister) and Tiya Cora.
The performances are nothing to scoff at. Coco Martin is effusively committed, without the excesses of his teleserye persona. You cannot help but sit back and hold on to your arms rest as he navigates in his desperate bid for redemption. Marikit, his child, was his way to moral atonement. True enough, Marikit was his way out so people could forget his incestuous past with cousin Madel. He ironically derives and reclaims his dignity from a ten-year corpse that was once his source of embarrassment. Indeed, “Bakit sa mga makasalanan nagpapakita ang Birhen,” asks Zora.
Palo’s pace and cinematic mounting seem deliberate and almost elegiac; the emotions on exhibit are most palpable in wistful moments of scrutinizing close ups. Nor Domingo (who has a short cameo) delivers a gorgeous cinematic palette and a dazzling camera work that captures the essence of the place. Dean Rosen’s music is as hypnotic as the volcanic dunes of Pampanga. Liza Magtoto and Palo’s writing is inspired although the concluding part could have been rendered less stagey.
Coco Martin is luminous; his eyes soulful as he carries his dead child. In his face, we feel the weight of gravity as he gingerly takes his stride towards every destination (i.e. his home or the church in San Fernando). As I’ve once written, this is vintage indie Coco Martin, and what a joy to behold. Alessandra de Rossi is equally stirring, but then when was she not? We’ve mentioned about Anita Linda’s redundant role (as a demented grandmother who rambles and wanders around) here, similar to her depictions in Olivia Lamasan’s “The Mistress” and Chito Rono’s “Caregiver”. Irma Adlawan is likewise predictably surly and one-dimentional. Leo Martinez, as the Bishop, is a bothersome presence and, is thus miscast as he lividly caricatures the religious order.
I have mentioned though that the flick is hobbled by a dubitable third quarter – the “lakbayan”. We are all creatures of religion; and we should know more than anyone that there’s a process for sainthood. Lorenzo Ruiz took years; the well-loved Pope John Paul II may take decades. It isn’t like we’re just recently introduced into this predicament. Pol has a nun for a sister (competently played by Angel Aquino). She could have saved them the long travel from Barangay Saplala to San Fernando. And it is annoying how such ignorance had to include other hopefuls who never got the cure for their emotional and physical ailments.
Sometimes, religious constitution dictates the standards of our morality. We have scruples that continually govern our lifestyle. Such dilemma should be remedied by whatever it is that doesn’t harm others. I would like to think that whenever we face gray areas, our decisions are only answerable to God; not the church. So why do we need their blessing?
|Alessandra de Rossi is Madel.|
|Anita Linda is Lola Bining|
|Melchor becomes Zora, the former visionary. Judiel Nieva, anyone?|
|Governor Dodo and his aggressive wife: "Don't you want to be recognized as the governor of Pampanga's first saint?"|
|Irma Adlawan as Tita Cora|
|Lola Bining gets her lucidity back|
|Lakbayan for Marikit's sainthood|
|Church gets an audience.|
|Kissing cousins Pol and Madel|
|Pol and Lola Bining|
|Coco Martin (above and below)|