Fathom for a moment the unknowable number of domestic violence victims around the world. It’s a distressing notion, considering that even in the age of Time’s Up, countless cases in which women and children suffer at the hands of male rage go either dismissed or unreported. With sharp-eyed empathy and a disciplined sense of pacing, writer-director Raymund Ribay Gutierrez defiantly sets out to confront this reality in a cramped corner of Manila, drawing attention to one such tragic incident in his reflective feature debut “Verdict.” Throughout this engrossing and sophisticated procedural with universal audience appeal, Gutierrez slowly dismantles his country’s imperfect justice system, where nightmarish bureaucracy gobbles up compassion and the urgent needs of the survivors take a backseat in a grueling Kafkaesque circus.
And yet, the case in question — fictional, but based on long-standing truths in the contemporary Philippines according to a statement from the filmmaker — could not be any simpler, backed by indisputable evidence every step of the way. We meet its key players in a tightly orchestrated opening sequence, set inside the overstuffed and underprivileged home of a married young woman named Joy Santos (Max Eigenmann). Transcribing the advanced hours of the night, cinematographer Joshua Reyles’ aptly restless handheld camera lingers on a wall clock first, before panning across family pictures and eventually landing on Joy and her six-year-old daughter Angel (Jordhen Suan).
Entering the scene with alarming agitation is Joy’s blindly drunk husband Dante (Kristoffer King), a smalltime crook who in no time discharges his jealousy-fueled venom onto his wife with both abusive language (frequently using words like “bitch” and “whore”) and severe physical harm. He brutally injures his family and flees the scene with only a knife slash on his arm — a wound Joy inflicts in self-defense. Here, Gutierrez leaves no room for doubt: This is neither the first time Joy has been subjected to such atrocity, nor will it be the last if she can’t find a way out.
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Shooting the incident (and much of his film) in quivering, vérité-style long takes, Gutierrez records the disturbance in clear pieces of action, as various witnesses outside the exposed living quarters also see the events unfold. What follows feels promising enough initially — Joy dashes to a local police station and authorities dedicated to violence against women promptly knock on Dante’s mother’s door, taking him into custody in handcuffs while Joy and Angel receive treatment at a nearby hospital. If only the rest of the Filipino machinations could live up to these early crumbs of support in addressing Joy’s imperative needs.
But in the cumbersome world of overcrowded streets that Gutierrez documents in grainy yet vivid specificity, attaining and maintaining fairness proves to be hard work. In dimly lit labyrinthine offices and dust-speckled courtrooms, we see justice get buried beneath piles of paperwork on the desks of those who keep one eye on the clock. On the surface, all the right pieces seem to be there: a judge, a legal system that relentlessly pursues the truth, witnesses, duty-minded attorneys and prosecutors (with varying degrees of competence). But slowly, a frustrating helplessness casts a gloomy shadow over the proceedings, when a simple enough decision gets further and further delayed due to various uncooperative components of the conundrum.
Thanks to a crippled system that insists on process over common sense, Joy ends up facing her attacker numerous times, enduring the insecure man-child’s continued bullying and transgressions, enabled in part by Dante’s unsympathetic family. In courtroom scenes written with astonishing attention to detail, Gutierrez seizes a grippingly refined rhythm and a disheartening scenario that could be considered a prototype for every unfairly discredited female ever. As Dante’s morally bankrupt attorney sets out to dispute the authenticity of Joy’s accusations through a carefully considered line of questioning, it’s nearly impossible not to feel for all the unnamed women around the globe whose wings have similarly been clipped.
In that, Gutierrez’s “Verdict” feels of a piece with Xavier Legrand’s exceptional domestic abuse-themed drama-thriller “Custody.” France and the Philippines might be worlds apart, and yet, there are startling similarities between the respective silences of Joy and the cruelly mistreated protagonist of “Custody.” A lot like Léa Drucker in that film, a fearful Eigenmann owns her largely wordless scenes quietly with resolute grace, braving inadequate power structures that fail to acknowledge the immediate danger she faces. In the end, the fates of both women are infuriatingly left up to chance. Whether or not Joy dodges the bullet is the lesser point Gutierrez deftly makes. What’s more important to him is the cost of egalitarianism that erroneously holds domestic abuse victims and their perpetrators as lawful equals. The dangerous loopholes he skillfully lays bare feel both terrifying and damningly familiar.