Emmanuel Quindo Palo’s Sta. Niña struck me as a gothic melodrama structured along similar lines to the work of Douglas Sirk, but filtered heavily through a very Filipino veil. Like Sirk’s multi-layered masterworks, Sta. Nina uses familial conflicts to explore social mores against a broad canvas. But instead of race and class, the emphasis here is on religion, particularly the fanatical Catholicism imbued with animist elements that’s unique to the Philippines. Beyond faith though, politics, the media, and even commerce all get some commentary in the sprawling stew of a story presented here. The simple summary goes: while digging at a sand quarry formed in the wake of the explosion of Mt. Pinatubo and the subsequent lahar flows that buried the province of Pampanga , a young man comes upon the long-lost grave of his daughter who died 10 years ago. Within her intact coffin lies her amazingly preserved cadaver, which the superstitious and pious townsfolk quickly interpret as a miracle, thus leading to her becoming a locus of hope and healing for the community. Or is she really?
There’s a lot going on here, visually and thematically, around the dense and dusty towns of Lahar-land. But the director and editor wisely choose to avoid lingering too lengthily on the striking landscapes at their disposal. And while the overall narrative may be a bit rambling, the camerawork and cutting in individual scenes are skilfully arresting and taut. So a lot gets established quite efficiently in the first few scenes, despite the story having to rely on a few coincidences and the incredible (yet accurate) speed of small-town gossip to line up all the subplots.
The main cast, drawn mostly from the royalty of the Filipino indie repertory, all put in excellent, if almost predictably so, performances. This was the first feature film I’d seen Coco Martin in where I bought him as a grown man. He’s already a recognized talent but previous roles always seemed to rely on his boyishness. He’s more than believable as Pol, a beleaguered young man clinging to his daughter’s petrified corpse as some sort of totem while dealing with his own issues of grief and guilt. As Madel, the dead child’s mother who would rather just move on with her own life, Alessandro De Rossi has the naturalistic indie acting style down pat, and her finely honed face can devastate with just a look. But in the more Sirk-ian melodramatic moments, especially when confronting Irma Adlawan’s sour-faced bitch of a mother (who may have been a smidgen too astringent), the female leads veer dangerously close to letting some telenovela ticks bleed into their delivery at times. Several women-on-the-verge-of-a-catfight scenes punch up the screenplay, and though they may liven things up a bit with some scripted sparks, they contrast starkly against the rest of the film’s more contemplative tone. A better balance is reached, ironically enough, with the one character most in danger of being overdone – the disgraced former child visionary-turned-transsexual Zora. Real-life tranny Rie Batingana gracefully underplays the fallen creature, this would-be boy Bernadette (a thinly veiled reference to Judiel Nieva of Agoo), as a delicate soul resigned to her lot as a walking cautionary tale. A key scene between Zora and Madel smacks of something Almodovar may have dreamt up, but with the added resonance of Zora’s story being based on a real person. I was pleasantly proven wrong by expecting the transsexual to end up as the stereotypical comic relief, instead several other supporting character actors nimbly inject some light touches to keep the film from being too heavy a slog. Acting legend Anita Linda masterfully straddles both milieus as the focus both of Sta. Nina’s more poignant and also more humorous beats. As the bishop of Pampanga however, veteran comic Leo Martinez really hams it up, broadly overacting as an exaggerated caricature of a holier-than-thou man of the cloth. His character may be meant to get some giggles, but when he pops up it’s still pretty distracting even if he’s onscreen for just a few minutes. It’s like he’s been transplanted from a different kind of movie altogether, which is regrettable because it’s the clergy who play the level-headed skeptics here. It’s amusingly incongruous to see, at least in this case, the priests tempering the masses’ faith, worrying that they may get TOO devoted to a religious icon. And so the religious allegories and imagery keep piling up until there’s really only one more tack for them to take in the final act.
Like with death and decay, you might as well embrace the denouement’s inevitability so that you can greet its arrival with a sigh of relief. While maybe not making a true believer out of everybody, Sta. Nina at least helps one appreciate how any catharsis, however telegraphed (and here using a really tall telegraph pole), is still a better end than just a whimper or a wink.