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Religion, morality and politics combine powerfully in "Apparition," U.S.-based Filipino helmer Vincent Sandoval's outstanding sophomore feature.

With: Mylene Dizon, Jodi Sta. Maria, Raquel Villavicencio, Fides Cuyagan-Asensio, Constancio Gan, Rustica Carpio, Star Orjaliza, Madeleine Nicolas, Al Gatmaitan, Angelita Raymundo, Antonette Garcia, Danny Carolino. (Tagalog, English dialogue)

Religion, morality and politics combine powerfully in “Apparition,” U.S.-based Filipino helmer Vincent Sandoval’s outstanding sophomore feature. Centered on a young Catholic nun impregnated by a rape at a remote convent during the 1971 declaration of martial law, this intelligently scripted and deeply moving mood-piece asks hard questions about the reconciliation of spiritual beliefs and physical realities. “Apparition” deserves to materialize at fests everywhere and in the schedules of specialty broadcasters. Domestic release details are yet to be announced.

A film that never needs to raise its voice to make an impact, “Apparition” opens with serene footage of Sister Lourdes (Jodi Sta. Maria) trekking through the lush forest surrounding the Adoration convent in Rizal province. Arriving at her new home, Lourdes is welcomed by Mother Superior Ruth (Fides Cuyagan-Asensio), a stern elder who describes the convent as “a physical and spiritual sanctuary.” Slowly and very surely, this proves to be far from the truth.

Quietly assuming her role in the routines of prayer and tending the convent’s gardens, Lourdes finds a life-changing friend in Sister Remy (Mylene Dizon), a novice suffering a crisis of faith on the eve of taking her vows. Remy’s doubts deepen following news that her brother has disappeared after taking part in anti-Marcos government protests.

Sandoval carefully steers the tale into thriller territory as distraught Remy and curious Lourdes begin sneaking out to attend fiery political meetings in a nearby town. Returning from one such gathering, the two nuns are stalked by thugs whose appalling rape of Lourdes leaves her pregnant and instills a paralyzing sense of survivor’s guilt in Remy, who narrowly escaped capture.

Drawing strong parallels between chaos in the outside world and the shattering of splendid isolation at Adoration convent, Sandoval and co-scripter Jerry Gracio place a searing spotlight on Lourdes’ terrible situation in the context of her Catholic faith. Wishing to terminate her pregnancy, Lourdes is bluntly refused by Mother Superior, who is directed by Bishop Lopez (Constancio Gan) to keep the incident quiet and preserve the reputation of the Church at any cost.

To the screenplay’s great credit, these discussions of faith, duty and the status of the Catholic Church within the wider community are geared to engage and stimulate audiences of all religious and non-religious persuasions. The talk is tough and frank, but no cheap shots are ever fired.

Pic’s latter stages are enhanced by a “Rashomon”-like series of flashbacks to the night of the rape that calls into question the roles played by Mother Superior and senior nun Sister Vera (Raquel Villavicencio). Story strands are expertly brought together in a finale that will leave few auds unmoved.

Perfs by a virtually all-female cast are spot-on. Jay Abello’s lensing effectively contrasts the antiseptic hues of the convent interiors with the rich colors in surrounding areas. Teresa Barrozo’s subtle piano score is in perfect harmony with the drama. Rest of the tech package is pro on a modest budget.

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Production: A Cinemalaya Foundation presentation of an Autodidact Pictures production. (International sales: Autodidact Pictures, Milwaukee.) Produced by Vincent Sandoval, Darlene Catly Malimas. Executive producer, Jerome Kerkman. Co-executive producers, Markane Earl Goho, Merrick Clint Goho, Mian Sebastian. Directed by Vincent Sandoval. Screenplay, Sandoval, Jerry Gracio.

Crew: Camera (color, HD), Jay Abello; editors, Jerrold Tarog, Sandoval; music, Teresa Barrozo; production designer, Roland Rubenecia; art director, Rey Peru; sound (stereo), Addiss Tabong; visual effects supervisor, Tabong; associate producer, Eric Alvin Po; assistant directors, Maita Lirra Lupac, Bianca Balbuena. Reviewed at Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival (New Breed -- competing), July 23, 2012. (Also in Busan Film Festival -- competing; Vancouver Film Festival -- Dragons & Tigers.) Running time: 87 MIN.

With: With: Mylene Dizon, Jodi Sta. Maria, Raquel Villavicencio, Fides Cuyagan-Asensio, Constancio Gan, Rustica Carpio, Star Orjaliza, Madeleine Nicolas, Al Gatmaitan, Angelita Raymundo, Antonette Garcia, Danny Carolino. (Tagalog, English dialogue)

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