"Sta. Nina" is set in lahar-ravaged Pampanga. A small coffin was unearthed in a quarrying operation. When Pol (Coco Martin) opens the box, the dead little girl encased inside was still intact with no sign of decay. Puzzled, he brings it home with him. His neighbors begin to experience unexplainable healings when they are in the presence of the uncorrupted corpse.
Meanwhile, Pol's personal life is also in shambles as he still has bitter years-old conflicts with his estranged wife Madel (Alessandra da Rossi) and her vindictive mother (Irma Adlawan). As Pol struggles to rid himself of the bad luck that hounded him all his life, could the miraculous corpse of little Marikit also prove to be his salvation?
Writer and first-time movie director Emmanuel Quindo Palo does not spoon feed us the story. He tells the story in a way that we have to slowly discover the relationships of the characters. The audience is left to guess at these things until they are revealed in due time. I liked that.
Religion is the main backbone of this drama. We see scenes of religious fanaticism in the country folks' belief in miraculous cures, as well as in their gory Holy Week traditions. The audience is challenged to reassess their belief or disbelief in miracles. Director Palo also practically goes through the Stations of the Cross en route to a climactic crucifixion scene. He also has a publicly-maligned character that obviously references a real trans-gender ex-Marian visionary Judiel Nieva.
We also see scenes seemingly critical of the clergy. Having a comedian well known for portraying a corrupt congressman, Leo Martinez, play the character of the unsympathetic Archbishop is a less than subtle satiric ploy by the director. A direct dig about church donations received a rousing applause from the audience!
Coco Martin is not called the "indie prince" for nothing. This guy can really possess the role he is playing, no matter how strange, with so much passion. Alessandra da Rossi is really no-nonsense in her portrayal of Madel, a name obviously derived from Mary Magdalene, the biblical sinner. Of the supporting characters, it is really Ms. Anita Linda who brings the house down with her portrayal of Pol's grandmother stricken with Alzheimer's disease. Two of her wisecracks even got loud rounds of audience applause.
To be sure, "Sta. Nina" revisits familiar territory. Folk faith healing miracles had also been the subject of another most-acclaimed Filipino movie "Himala." However, unlike "Himala," "Sta. Nina" is less downbeat in its message and execution. The beautiful cinematography is top notch! Its sold-out audiences in all its showings at this current Cinemalaya Film Festival is a testament of its ability of drawing the audience into its hypnotic spell. This will be a strong contender come awards night.
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