Viva la independencia! As we celebrate this month our liberation from colonial rule, there is another form of banishment we can throughly enjoy.
Demonic possession, like mangoes, is in season and, for the third month in a row, we have another exorcist drama in cinemas.
Derick Cabrido’s biographical horror Clarita comes on the heels of Mark Meily’s Maledicto in April and Eric Matti’s Kuwaresma in May. The events of the film are based on the supposed demonic possession of 17-year-old Clarita Villanueva who was arrested for vagrancy in 1953 Manila and placed in the Old Bilibid prison.
Pissed that the rabid media coverage of Clarita’s possession is giving the city a bad reputation, Manila mayor Arsenio Lacson (played Nonie Buencamino) has the girl studied by doctors and mental health professionals who, in turn, diagnosed her with various illnesses of the mind.
When science fails, Lacson turns to exorcists Father Salvador (Ricky Davao), a weary veteran, and Father Benedicto (Arron Villaflor), a skeptical neophyte to purge the demon out of Clarita.
But is it only the girl who harbors demons under her skin? In the battle of good and evil, who will break first?
Clarita jumps right into the part where possession is already in progress, therefore eliminating the need for a long build up and giving more space for character development.
From the start, it is immediately made known that under the influence of demons, Clarita is a dangerous entity, capable of killing even without physical contact and dismembering herself.
The series of opening violence already hooks the audience into the deeper parts of the story instead of wasting time on longish expositions that build the mood for cheap jump scares and dialogue that does not move the story forward.
The premise is actually pretty much straightforward: a supernatural phenomenon becomes the amusement of a bored city but takes a perverse turn when she becomes the means to an end for people seeking personal salvation.
To journalist Emilia Henson (Alyssa Mulach), hers is a story that will freshen her rotting career in a male-dominated newspaper. To the doctors attending her, she is no more than a case study meant to bolster their careers and take them to better places.
Jodi Sta. Maria, who plays the titular role, pushes the acting envelope with the extensive physical and emotional requirements to bring her character to life.
The delicacy by which she portrays Clarita in her vulnerable and pained state is evenly matched by the visceral intensity she employs when the girl is in the throes of demonic possession.
Ricky Davao as Father Salvador held his own as a washed up exorcist only in a circus of its own making.
Clarita can boast of superb production values that invoke an elegant kind of terror. However, it would have been more effective had more effort been exerted in establishing that Manila-in-the-50’s mood.
Manila, after all, is a city rich in character, a natural setting for horror and noir.
Like most Filipino horror films, it did succumb to the use of jump scares, although sparingly and in good taste.
I do believe, however, that this is the sort of film that can survive without such as its innate sadness already extends the terror and it can well thrive in its gloom.
Clarita distinguishes itself from other exorcist dramas by offering tighter storytelling and stronger social commentary.
Visually, it is proof that Filipino horror can achieve greater heights and can be both grotesque but sophisticated at the same time.
Clarita is Rated 13 by the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board (MTRCB).
Ed's Note: The "PEP Review" section carries the views of individual reviewers, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the PEP editorial team.