Jaime Oscar M. Salazar
Aparisyon, the sophomore feature of Vincent Sandoval, opens with an epigraph lifted from a section of the prison notebooks of Antonio Gramsci in which the Italian Marxist thinker ruminates on how political power is acquired, reinforced, and perpetuated, as well as the conditions under which it can be challenged: “[The] old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” The film then initiates the viewer into its scenario of symptoms by following Sister Lourdes (Jodi Sta. Maria), a young, earnest novitiate, as she trudges through lushly forested, mountainous terrain in search of Adoration, the remote Carmelite monastery that is to be her new home.
Populated by about a dozen nuns under the care and direction of Mother Superior Ruth de los Reyes(Fides Cuyugan-Asensio), who is assisted by Sister Vera (Raquel Villavicencio), Adoration is conceived to be a sanctuary for both body and soul, where everyday life is ordered and performed according to a strict rhythm of work and prayer in an atmosphere of mostly unbroken, though far from cheerless, silence. The serenity that is supposed to come with such a structured and secluded existence, however, moves inexorably out of reach as the turbulence of the outside world begins to impinge upon the walls of the cloister that its inhabitants would prefer to imagine as impregnable. The precariousness of their situation is initially signaled by the theft of a chicken from the sisters’small coop, but finds firmer flesh in the intertwined plights of Lourdes and Sister Remy (Mylene Dizon), with whom Lourdes strikes up a close friendship.
Learning during a visit from her family that her elder brother, a former university teacher, has been missing for two months, believed to have been apprehended by members of the police constabulary because of his involvement in protest actions against the government, Remy asks permission to leave the convent in order to help her relatives. Gently but firmly rebuffed, she takes advantage of her position as an extern—that is, one authorized to go into town from time to time to sell the nuns’ herbal medicine and run other errands—to attend political gatherings and acquire a couple of contraband items: a copy of Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire, and a radio with which she keeps herself abreast of goings-on, though this leaves her increasingly distraught, torn between the quiet obedience required by her vocation and the vigorous engagement demanded by current events.
Remy eventually manages to draw a curious Lourdes into the ambit of her preoccupations, with the latter applying for and being granted the status of extern as well. They are trekking back from town late one night after a protracted meeting when they are accosted by a gang of thugs in the woods near the monastery, and while Remy evades capture, Lourdes, unable to flee on account of a turned ankle, is brutally raped. The remainder of the film is devoted to showing how the nuns, individually and collectively, grapple with this violation and its arduous aftermath: an examination by a doctor reveals that Lourdes is carrying the child of one of her attackers.
The titular specter of the film—which starts in 1971, in the period of ferment between the First Quarter Storm and the declaration of martial law by Ferdinand E. Marcos—that materializes to haunt the sisters is neither a restless spirit of the dead nor a divine vision, of course, but history. Appearing at, seeping through, and rattling the gates of Adoration, it is the chaotic forces of history that catch these brides of Christ doing exactly what the Gospel of Mark, which is read during an early part of the film, warns the faithful against: sleeping at their posts, unvigilant and ill-prepared to mount effective, ethical responses to the upheavals that are taking place and that are yet to come.
But for the absence of a thoroughgoing exploration of motives and stakes, affects and effects, the depiction of the slow degeneration of the women of the cloth into mindless fear, paralyzing guilt, and incessant, inutile prayer would have made for a devastating critique of a community that persists in clinging to ways that are not simply inadequate, but utterly bankrupt in the face of rapidly shifting circumstances—that Sandoval intends Adoration, a term that connotes excessive, uncritical esteem, to be understood a microcosm of Philippine society in what was then supposed to be the twilight of Marcos’s second term is apparent enough. So deeply and desperately invested are the nuns, especially Ruth and Vera, in ensuring that the monastery functions as a world unto itself,impervious to all earthly concerns, and—upon advice of the bishop—in preserving the reputation of the Catholic Church, that they construct a conspiracy of silence around Lourdes’s ordeal, thwarting efforts by both the press and the authorities to investigate the matter, heedless of the costs to themselves.
The lack of trenchant analysis of its characters and their milieu notwithstanding, Aparisyon succeeds at opening up spaces within which to probe and ponder the fraught issues of faith, duty, and responsibility, and is well-served by restrained, but nevertheless intense,performances by its cast members, together with excellent cinematography by Jay Abello and an eerie score by Teresa Barrozo. Unfolding at a meditative pace, the film is able to at least adumbrate the profound entanglements and baffling complexities of complicity, showing how one with the purest intentions and the loftiest goals may, in spite of oneself, ultimately come away with robes dark with mud and hands luminous with blood.