'Verdict': Film Review | Venice 2019

Courtesy of Venice International Film Festival
A dry court procedural.

The feature debut from Brillante Mendoza protege Raymund Ribay Gutierrez premiered in the festival's Horizons section.

A woman from the Philippines takes her husband to court after a night of drunken abuse in Verdict, the feature debut from Raymund Ribay Gutierrez. This first film was clearly long awaited, with the director’s two most recent shorts, Judgement and Imago, selected to compete for the Palme d’Or in Cannes. But even though the subject matter is urgent as well as important, this two-hour drama feels too much like an ersatz Brillante Mendoza joint, with the Cannes best director winner (for 2009’s Kinatay) perhaps not coincidentally the executive producer as well as a “creative consultant” here. 

While Mendoza’s smudgy, shaky-cam aesthetic, familiar from films like Ma' Rosa, is quite faithfully replicated and Gutierrez’s film is set in Mandaluyong, Manila, and checks in at its Police HQ, much like a part of Ma’ Rosa, what is almost entirely missing is any sense of urgency or character. Verdict, as its generic, article-less title already seems to foreshadow, is finally more interesting for Filipino legal-system aficionados than for fans of rewarding drama. 

The ironically named Joy (Max Eigenmann, restrained but determined) is the mother of a cute girl, appropriately named Angel (Jorden Suan). At night, Joy’s husband, a low-level crook with the hell-invoking name of Dante (Mendoza's late muse Kristoffer King, overacting), stumbles into their meager dwelling drunk and starts shouting abuse at her before getting his hands on her. Joy tries to defend herself with a kitchen knife, hurting her husband on his arm. Angel is also hurt in the struggle, while Joy receives several severe blows to her face. When mother and daughter finally manage to escape, they literally run to the police to file a complaint against Dante and have him arrested.

These early establishing scenes are the feature’s best as the viewer is thrown straight into the thick of things, with the restless camera struggling to keep up with the fight. Cinematographer Joshua A. Reyles — who also shot Mendoza’s recent Alpha: The Right to Kill as well as Gutierrez’s shorts — is frequently just a beat too late with his movements and with the digital image’s focus, which adds to the sense of things spiraling out of control. Further aiding this sensation is the frenetic cutting by editor Diego Marx Dobles, another Mendoza alumnus.

But an early, visceral sensation of things going haywire, as a domestic spat turns into physical abuse due to alcohol and ill will, isn’t enough to carry an entire feature. And while Dante has problems containing his anger even at Police HQ and in court, most of what follows is actually a dreary succession of court dates. They are each a few weeks apart, as different elements of the case are discussed in front of a stone-faced (male) judge (Pakingan Rene Durian) by Joy’s world-weary public prosecutor (Lourdes Javelosa-Indunan) and the fancy-schmancy lawyer (Vincent Aureus) that Dante’s mother (Dolly De Leon) hires even though she can’t really afford him. 

Since we don’t know much about either Joy or Dante beyond what happened to them in the film’s opening struggle, they are more faceless actors in a predicament than real-life characters experiencing distressing emotions and finding their lives unexpectedly impacted by a system supposedly in place to protect each citizen equally. 

There is a sense that Gutierrez, who also wrote the screenplay, is interested in the court case as an example of something that occurs a lot in the Philippines, with especially the closing shots suggesting there are thousands of cases like it. And it is a lofty idea to make a film about the difficulty of a woman to try and get a fair judgment when the system, already extremely bureaucratic and slow, doesn’t really seem to be equal for everyone. But those are generic and finally quite meager insights for a two-hour film. Indeed, it is impossible to sustain this running time when stick figures populate what is essentially a dry court procedural, however much you shake a camera at it. 

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Horizons)
Production companies: Center Stage Productions, Films Boutique, Playtime, Bord Cadre
Cast: Max Eigenmann, Kristoffer King, Jorden Suan, Pakingan Rene Durian, Lourdes Javelosa-Indunan, Vincent Aureus, Stephen Humiwat, Liza Schneider, Sidney Schneider, Dolly De Leon, Jalyn Perez, Dominic Carpio 
Writer-director: Raymund Ribay Gutierrez
Executive producer: Brillante Ma Mendoza
Cinematography: Joshua A. Reyles
Production designer: Rayn Faustino
Costume designer: Ruffa Zulueta
Editing: Diego Marx Dobles
Casting: Eden Solidor
Sales: Films Boutique

In Tagalog, English
No rating, 126 minutes