Movie Review: Newly-restored 'Himala' is phenomenal

When it comes to career-defining roles, you’d be hard-pressed to beat Nora Aunor’s faith healer Elsa in Ishmael Bernal’s “Himala”.

Screened last week to a star-studded audience as part of the Cinema One Originals film festival, “Himala” has been restored-–just in time for its 30th anniversary–-by Central Digital Lab in cooperation with the ABS-CBN Film Archive’s initiative to preserve its over-3000-title library.

While the restoration isn’t quite as visually revelatory as Central Digital’s previously-released effort, Peque Gallaga’s “Oro, Plata, Mata”, with persistent grain (in addition to that inherent to the film stock), inconsistent colors and dirt present throughout, make no mistake, this version is leaps and bounds above any of the prints seen back

in 1982.

Gone are the multiple subtitles that framed the poorly pan-and-scanned versions audiences have grown, often unwillingly, accustomed to via regular TV screenings. In their place is a slightly blurred set of burned-in English subs that went out with the original international festival release. Ready for new audiences. An original still of the iconic prayer scene (left), and the restored version (right).

On a more positive note, also missing here (thanks to the frame-by-frame cleanup) are most of the more-obvious scratches that used to mar Sergio Lobo’s skillful cinematography.

Penned by screenwriting icon Ricky Lee, and based partially on a true story, “Himala” tells the tale of Elsa, a simple girl from the village of Cupang. As the film opens, a solar eclipse has plunged the village and its surrounding areas into temporary darkness.

It is in the darkness-–on the village outskirts where Elsa’s adopted mother (Vangie Labalan) first found her as a baby-–that the young girl has a vision of the Virgin Mary, the first of many.

Facing initial skepticism and, in some cases, scorn, from the village elders-–including the parish priest (Joel Lamangan, doing triple duty on top of his roles as casting and crowd director)-–Elsa sticks to her story. As the days mount, with more and more villagers start believing the girl’s tale, it becomes something of an event to join Elsa in her now-daily pilgrimages to the apparition site.

A turning point is reached when Elsa begins exhibiting stigmata and miraculous healing powers. Quick to capitalize-–at first, figuratively, later, literally-–on Elsa’s new found abilities is Mrs. Alba (Veronica Palileo), who organizes healing and prayer sessions. Before long, the sessions are the center of the village’s entire economy, as thousands come from far and wide to experience Elsa’s miracles.

Before long, temptation and vice-–initially characterized by former bar girl Nimia (Gigi Dueñas) and mentions of (ostensibly) far away Manila-–rear their insatiable heads as enterprise-minded villagers conjure ways to part the multitude of visitors from their money. While the crowds around Elsa increase, previously unheard-of incidents of alcoholism, prostitution, gambling, rape–even murder–effectively turn the formerly sleepy town upside down.

Along for the ride is documentary filmmaker Orly (Spanky Manikan), who seeks to make a name for himself with footage of Elsa’s miracles. As an outsider who arrives in Cupang for the express purpose of exploitation, it is one of the story’s many ironies that he–-as opposed to one of Elsa’s Seven (self-proclaimed) Apostles, much less any of the townspeople-–who emerges changed for the better by his encounters with the faith healer.

The final scene, which has been referenced, emulated and parodied ad nauseam, has lost none of its potency, none of its power to move. Regardless of how many times we’ve seen or heard it before, the moment Aunor launches into what has become her signature speech, the goose bumps are no less genuine than they must have been 30 years ago.

It is here more than in any other sequence that Bernal’s direction, Lee’s words, Lamangan’s crowd direction and Aunor’s skill as a performer come together to create nothing less than Philippine cinematic nirvana.

As a pitch-black satire of herd mentality by way of blind faith, the messages and themes on display in “Himala” are as relevant today as they've ever been, only with celebrities, politicians and mass consumerism in the place of faith healers and soothsayers.

The film’s final shots drive home the cyclical nature of the herd, willfully foregoing common sense and rationality in favor of blissful self-delusion.

Think about it: We never actually see anyone cured by Elsa’s miracles.

The cults of celebrity that have sprung up around superstars, megastars and stars for all seasons are all representative of the mindset that leads to Elsa’s ultimate fate. By clothing their tale in the finery of mass entertainment, Bernal and his team created the ultimate irreverent work, setting the standard by which anyone claiming to be subversive must be judged.

As far as popular thinking goes, precious little has changed since “Himala” was made. In this regard, time has been kind to the tale of Elsa, and now, thanks to the ABS-CBN Film Restoration Project, the faithful will be able to pay homage to this miracle for decades to come.--KDM, GMA News

Select screenings of `Himala' can be viewed at SM North, SM Megamall, SM Manila, SM Southmall, Powerplant, Market Market, Trinoma, Glorietta 4 and Robinsons Galleria, SM Cebu, SM Davao and Gaisano Mall Davao. All photos courtesy of CInema One.