Apparition (Aparisyon): Busan Review

The drama about the rape of a young cloistered nun in Marcos’s Philippines is tempting, but ultimately resistible and uninvolving

Filipino director Vincent Sandoval follows his transgender drama Senorita with a story about nuns living in a remote convent during the Marcos years

BUSAN –  There are few signs of faith in the remote mountain cloister in Apparition, where a small group of Catholic nuns practice poverty, chastity and obedience. What director Vincent Sandoval (Senorita) seems most interested in is using the convent as a metaphor for Filipino society in the Seventies, which buried its head in the sand while president Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law and police tortured and murdered opposition protestors. Fans of Xavier Beauvois’ contemplative art house hit Of Gods and Men, which has several points of similarity, are likely to be disappointed at Sandoval’s mundane focus, though its well-shot subject could attract some interest outside festivals after its Busan and Vancouver bows.  

PHOTOS:  Busan Opening Night 

When bright-eyed novitiate Sister Lourdes (Jodi Sta. Maria) arrives at the convent of Adoration, tucked way up a forested mountain, she finds a dozen nuns living as a family protected from the world around them. Mother Superior (Fides Uyugan-Asensio) is strict but not a monster, the mature Sister Vera (Raquel Villavicencio) a little dour and forbidding, and the others are sweet-faced ladies who just want to follow the rules and pray. Nothing wrong with that, were it not for the disturbances happening outside. Protest rallies are taking place almost daily in Manila and the brother of Sister Remy (Mylene Dizon) has been arrested by the police. Not surprisingly, Mother Superior (who reads the newspaper and knows what’s going on) advises her sheltered brood to sit tight and say their prayers.

Of course the outside world eventually impinges on their peaceful, see-no-evil lives. First, independent young Sister Remy sneaks a radio into her room and then begins attending political meetings against Marcos. Since she and Sister Lourdes are the convent’s two “externs”, only they are allowed to make the long trek through the woods to get supplies in town. On one such occasion they are late in returning, and in the dark get attacked by a band of thugs, who brutally gang rape one of them.

With the safety of their monastic sanctuary violated, the nuns are no longer in peace. The rest of the film follows their reaction to this disaster, which includes an unwanted pregnancy, deep emotional scars and guilty consciences. Though there is a lot of praying in the chapel, the film never suggests any divine comfort, much less mystical intervention, in their plight. As the opening quote about a sick society from Communist leader Antonio Gramsci suggests, Sandoval’s is a lay approach that has little to offer to religious-minded viewers. More importantly, the characters begin to have improbable reactions that question their credibility. Would a meek Catholic nun furiously demand to have an abortion, for example?  As the metaphor of the convent as society in miniature takes precedence over realism, the rape’s aftermath becomes less and less involving, despite the film’s perfectly adequate all-female cast.   

Scenes are bathed in painterly light and shadows by cinematographer Jay Abello that underline the restful atmosphere of the surroundings; only the rape scene – often returned to in flashback – has a discolored, ghostly harshness. Teresa Barrozo’s score, suggesting waiting, adds value with its cool modernity.

Venue:  Busan Film Festival (New Currents), Oct. 7, 2012

Production companies:  Autodidact Pictures, Cinemalaya Foundatio

Cast: Mylene Dizon, Jodi Sta.Maria, Fides Uyugan-Asensio, Raquel Villavicencio, Rustica Carpio, Star Orjaliza

Director: Vincent Sandoval

Screenwriters:  Vincent Sandoval, Jerry Gracio

Producers: Jerome Kerkman, Darlene Malimas, Vincent Sandoval

Executive producer: Jerome Kerkman

Director of photography: Jay Abello 

Production designer:  Roland Rubenecia

Editors: Jerrold Tarog, Vincent Sandoval

Music: Teresa Barrozo

No rating, 87 minutes.