Catholic priests assailed by inner demons fall under the spell of a mysterious child healer in “Seclusion,” veteran Filipino genre director Erik Matti’s skillful reworking of the “Omen” conceit, in the elegant, nostalgic style reminiscent of Spanish horror films like “The Devil’s Backbone.” Like that film, “Seclusion” features a war-torn backdrop that serves as a bleak allegory on blind faith and the lure of false gods in a land overrun by fascism. The film won nine awards at the Metro Manila Film Festival including best director. Since Matti has already established himself on the international genre scene with crime noirs “On the Job” and “Honor Thy Father,” “Seclusion” won’t be tucked away for long before turning up at genre fests and on the small screen.
“Seclusion” recalls the hushed horror of Matti’s earlier ghost mystery “Pa-siyam” as both draw on Christian orthodoxy and indigenous superstitions to unmask human hypocrisy. Here, the film’s sardonic denouement hints at what’s at stake for democracy in our so-called “post-truth generation.”
By setting the yarn in 1947, the screenplay, by Anton Santamaria, summons a bygone era when piety and superstition were equally prevalent. Four deacons: Miguel (Ronnie Alonte), Fabian (Dominic Roque), Marco (John Vic De Guzman) and Carlos (JR Versales) are sent to a monastery in the provinces for their obligatory seven-day retreat shortly before being ordained in the priesthood. They are warned by the bishop that this is the time when they are most vulnerable to temptations of the devil.
Before long, the confined space and solitude start to play tricks on the novices’ minds. Matti whets one’s appetite with flashes of ghoulish visions but makes them ambiguous enough to be mere hallucinations. Production designer Ericson Navarro makes good use of the country’s Spanish colonial architecture to evoke a gloomy, antiquated ambience, while the ornate religious paraphernalia, especially statues of saints, project a spooky aura in the flickering candlelight.
In a nearby town, Friar Ricardo (Neil Ryan Sese) investigates the cult following surrounding Anghela (Rhed Bustamante), a young girl who performs miracle-healing (a scene of her spitting out black gunk into a jar as she treats her patients is far from a beatific sight). Meanwhile, Sister Cecilia (Phoebe Walker), an icily beautiful nun, has usurped the moppet’s parents to become her guardian and reaps profits from her charity work.
When Anghela’s parents are brutally murdered, with no identifiable cause, the child disappears with Sister Cecilia, only to turn up at the deacons’ cloistered abode. Their caretaker, Sandoval (Lou Veloso), quits his job after a conversation with Anghela, who seems to have telepathic knowledge of his past. Bustamante uncannily limns Anghela’s demeanor as something between a sage and a therapist.
Left to the mercy of the ever more controlling Sister Cecilia, the novices’ visions get ghastlier, and intriguingly, the mind-reading Anghela attributes these to their cardinal sins or to pathology. Miguel is the only one who resists her offers of spiritual solace, even though Erina (Elora Espano), the pregnant girlfriend he abandoned to enter holy orders, is clawing her way back into his subconscious.
Editor Jay Halili deftly keeps the two separate plot lines equally suspenseful until they converge at the movie’s midpoint. However, while Friar Ricardo’s uncovering of Sister Cecilia’s real identity and harrowing experience during the war fuels tension, the horrors breaking out in the monastery never escalate to a truly spine-chilling level. And as long as protagonists and audiences continue to wonder whether Anghela is a self-proclaimed messenger of God or Satan’s spawn, the film works. But the darkly atmospheric buildup is partly marred by a busy and rushed ending.
Although events take place two years after the end of WWII, there are outbursts of unsanctioned violence, as when Friar Ricardo encounters a crazed former soldier who believes the Japanese Imperialist Army is still on the rampage. Eventually, it’s revealed that several characters: Marco, Cecilia, and Ricardo all inherited some war-related trauma. The idea of people descending into inhumane behavior during a state of emergency, when extra-judicial killings are condoned, has sharp contempo relevance to the Philippines.
The dignified Sese personifies the sensibility and moral conviction of Friar Ricardo, in marked contrast with the young male cast whose inexperience fits the novices’ high-strung and impressionable nature. But the major discovery here is Bustamante, who possesses the mesmerizing charisma of a cult leader. Her statuesque composure and eloquent manner of speech is far beyond her years, and on top of that, she knows how to appear unfathomable.
Unlike Matti’s recent horror outings, “The Aswang Chronicles” Part 1 & 2, which are shot entirely on green screen and revel in grindhouse aesthetics, the production reportedly eschewed all special effects. The result is a painterly, sepia-toned visual texture whose classical quality is enhanced by the baroque-inflected choral score by Francis de Veyra.