Sunday, October 19, 2014

Chito Rono's "The Trial" - Riveting Cinema

Ronald Jimenez (John Lloyd Cruz) is 27 going 13; mentally that is. But he is about to graduate seventh grade. Helping him catch up with school work is Bessy Buenaventura (Jessy Mendiola), his kind-hearted teacher and the school president’s niece.

Though Ronald is “developmentally delayed”, his functionality approaches “borderline normal”. Still slower than most, he is able to perform tasks and function like most people. In fact, he's a brilliant gardener in school where he works part-time in exchange of his admission. Back home, he lives with lesbian “father” Santi (Sylvia Sanchez) and cross-dressing “mother” Nando (Vince de Jesus), his biological parents. He is surrounded by the oddball horde who populates the comedy bar where his parents work.

Meanwhile, grief palpably percolates in the Bien household still reeling from the death of son Martin (Enrique Gil) who perished in a vehicular accident. It has been a year since but Amanda (Gretchen Barretto) is still wrapped in her own guilt and loss that she is unable to move on.

Hubby Julian (Richard Gomez) just wants to start anew so he wants their marriage annulled. To facilitate this, he has decided to sell their house, an idea that Amanda resists, “Ayokong makalimutan si Martin.” But a sensational rape case sweeps the Biens out of their own misery.

When a rape video involving Ronald and his teacher Bessy goes viral, Amanda gets asked by her friend Lallie Laperal (Vivian Velez) to help out. Amanda is, after all, Bessy’s godmother. Meanwhile, Santi and Nando pursue Julian to handle Ronald’s case. Unknown to the grieving couple, Ronald was Martin’s good friend when he was still hosting his Payatas feeding program. Ronald is even privy to some of the Bien’s internal dispute, not the least of which is Julian’s past infidelity.

To honor the memory of her son, Amanda convinces Julian to the take the case in exchange of her signing the annulment paper. Julian can only acquiesce. What happens to Bessy?  Did Ronald, who regularly watches porn videos borrowed from a friend, force himself on the only lady who’s shown him affection? Did he have violent streaks? The video (which shows Bessy parrying Ronalds’ advances) doesn't lie, does it? How can Bessy’s shouts (“Tama na, Ronald!”) be indicative of anything but rape?

As legal dramas go, Chito Rono's "The Trial" examines a world of flawed characters and dysfunctional families navigating a consciously litigious and supercilious society. It isn't easy to second guess its narrative trail. The story telling, from Enrico Santos and Kriz Gazmen’s script, is quite fluid. The build up towards the climax engages the viewer into one resolute viewing. As audience, you’re transfixed on your seat, with bated breath, while the plot gradually unravels into one suspenseful denouement.  Mainstream drama has never been this riveting.  

The Trial”, inspired by a script originally written by Ricky Lee, is a pondering on intents and actions, of causes and effects, and how perception of truth is easily carved by man’s idea of what normal or abnormal is. In so many ways, our existence is defined by these scruples. Moreover, we’re made to scrutinize how some people face bereavement, palpably depicted in extreme contrast by Amanda and Julian’s behavior towards each other.

Grief is dealt with in different ways; some more destructive than others. The past, just like history, has its own relevance, as when Julian watches random videos of his family prior to the accident – quite wistfully gripping in its laidback demeanour. Looking back allows us to see how far we’ve strayed from our intended paths. I realize that there are situations far more devastating than the actual tragedy.

The movie romps away with superlative performances. Gretchen Barretto unexpectedly scintillates with devastating sincerity. In a role that’s conveniently a claptrap for overzealous sentimentality, Barretto is an enthralling study of thespic authority. You could feel her pain in every scene. When she finally runs after Ronald and remembers a similar incident involving her son, it becomes one of the most heart breaking scenes I've had to endure at the cinema this year. Suddenly you realize that it was Amanda’s moment of closure. If cinema were meant to move people like that, then you know it has served its purpose well.

Vince de Jesus, as gender-bending Nando, beautifully delivers a performance that shall define his acting career from here on. In fact, his scenes are high-wire acts, vacillating between comic and poignant (e.g. his valedictory scene with John Lloyd during their victory party). One of my favourite scenes involves Sylvia Sanchez as she recalls how Ronald was once bullied ("ang pula ng siopao"), ending up with blood on his forehead. This would be Sanchez’s most memorable, if uneven, turn as an actress. Unfortunately, her other scenes needed a bit of restraint because wrath or disappointment isn’t essentially realized by sheer auditory volume or nerve-popping histrionics. People don't always shout when hurt.

We’ve always thought of Jessy Mandiola as an adorable but bland pretty face. “Call Center Girl”, anyone? But not anymore. With this star turn, Mendiola is on her way to joining Star Cinema’s stellar league of A-list dramatic actresses (Bea Alonzo, Erich Gonzales, Angelica Panganiban, Iza Calzado, Maja Salvador) as she bowls us over with quiet power in "The Trial". 

Despite brevity of scenes (she is actually not seen in almost a third of the movie), her presence lingers in your head. 

There are several worth mentioning where she displays cinematic brilliance: her reaction after failing to answer a student’s question (about the difference between genetic drift and random mutation) while being observed by a CHED supervisor. Her deceptively “ordinary” scenes with her abusive boyfriend Benjamin Alves were likewise affecting. After all, what is there to fight for when someone you love has seen through your self-worth. Then there’s the scene when she tells Ronald, “Ikaw ang pinakamabait kong kaibigan sa buong mundo.” Mendiola, I suspect, is still evolving in her craft. Isn't that exciting for someone who’s a relative upstart in the business?

John Lloyd Cruz is a virtual force of nature. He inhabits Ronald Jimenez with fierce earnestness, it’s hard to presuppose his performance the way we can’t second guess persons with intellectual crutches. He is never predictable. Cruz, in attacking a character, combines intellect and intuition, and he’s quite consistent in it. His exquisite command of craft is evident in several scenes, like when he tells his teacher, “Ma’am Bessy, di ka naman okay, eh.” Or when he asks Gretchen how Martin’s younger brother isn’t Amanda’s son: "Paano nangyari yun?". Or when he realizes what Amanda’s asking, “Sikreto nga eh. Akala mo ha?” This list is long – and is thus proof of Cruz’s enviable commitment to his character.  


We do have reservation about Vivian Velez’s character. She may have valid concerns, but she is compromised by a black-and-white characterization. “Punch line of the academic community?” Don't we just love hyperbole?

The Trial” compels its viewers to sit back, if a tad uncomfortably, for an engaging narrative ride. It doesn’t allow passive spectatorship. You couldn’t help but dissect the motives presented by its characters – from Ronald to Bessy; from the grieving household of the Biens to the dysfunctional family of Santi and Nando Jimenez. You even find yourself examining Lallie Laperal’s motives – or her lawyer’s “too involved” attitude. With its mellifluous plot unraveling before your very eyes, you expect one perfect story, right? Or was it?

For the sake of discussion, allow me to nitpick. Bessy’s own intellectual inadequacy is so subtly suggested that we actually believe her predicament, i.e. that she’s also “slow”. Being that way, such individuals don’t briskly form conclusions or react with proficient problem-solving skill. In the scene where Ronald and Bessy engage in sex, when Bessy saw a phone filming their liaison, she immediately “concocts” a scenario that would make her look like the victim (thus her repeated cries, “Tama na, Ronald.”) This reaction seems incongruent to that of a slow mind. Lesser mortals would just scoot, skedaddle and hide, not engage in improvisational dramatics. Did she actually anticipate a litigious scenario to unravel as a result of their indiscretion? She isn’t all that slow, is she? 

In another scene where Julian discusses his strategy to save Ronald from imminent incarceration, Sylvia Sanchez’s undue wrath seemed too extreme – her vocal histrionics almost dug a hole in my tympanic membrane. After all, she was talking to an illustrious lawyer who’s had years of experience - and who had to be pursued to take the case. You’d think she’d be circumspect dealing with someone who agreed to help – instead she flew off the handle! Who cared if their family would look eccentric before the court? Eccentricity won’t send them to jail. Wasn’t their goal saving Ronald at all cost?  


Now let’s discuss my "favorite" part. Attorney Patricia Celis, portrayed by the usually brilliant Isay Alvarez, meets Amanda for the first time. The lawyer carries undue vitriol, regarding Amanda with absolute acrimony. She's haughty and morose. You would think that Atty. Celis has a personal stake on the case. You’d likewise mistake her as the aggrieved party. As counsellor, wasn’t she supposed to approach the case with sobriety and rational savvy? Which lawyer involves herself in a slapping incident with a would-be witness? Talk about misplaced theatrics. But then Alvarez is a luminary in Philippine theater. How very apropos.

As for the scene where Ronald finally takes the witness stand, was Bessy’s admission from the audience gallery even admissible in court? (She was asked if Ronald’s confessions were true.) Shouldn’t she take an oath first – that she’s telling the truth and nothing but – before anything she divulges would actually amount to much under the court of law? What’s the judge doing while this drama was happening? Cogitating on her morning bowel movement? Was she dozing off? You see, more credible admissions have been deemed inadmissible under the wrong platform. How different is this?

The film boasts of a hundred and one messages that make us think. That misunderstandings don’t exactly define a bad relationship. That a person could be worth our affection despite his inadequacies. And so on. This much is true – “The Trial” deserves to be seen by anyone who claims to love good movies.

John Lloyd Cruz

Jessy Mendiola
Benjamin Alvez joining his Tito Piolo in ABS-CBN?

Enrique Gil

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