Itim (Mike de Leon, 1976)
English Title: The Rites of May
Mike de Leon's debut feature film Itim (The Rites of May) opens with a seance. Catholic prayers are being recited by the spiritualist, as de Leon's camera circles the meeting. The prayers are silenced when the spiritualist announces that Rosa is dead. The mother (Mona Lisa) of Rosa asks if she can talk to her daughter. The spiritualist announces that they have to wait until Good Friday to talk to the departed. Rosa's sister, Teresa (Charo Santos) starts to mutter incoherent words and ends the seance scene with a supernatural seizure.
De Leon drapes his first feature film with Catholic imagery. The events transpire during the Holy Week in a provincial town that still strictly adheres to tradition. The main character, Jun (Tommy Abuel) returns to the town of San Idelfonso from Manila to visit his paralytic father Dr. Torres (Mario Montenegro). Working as a photographer, Jun also takes the chance to take pictures of the traditional rituals that take place during Holy Week. While taking pictures of the pabasa (a ritual that concerns the townsfolk singing out the entire Gospel), Jun chances upon Teresa and instantly takes a picture of the girl. When Teresa returns that night to her mother, she claims that she doesn't know how she landed in San Idelfonso and just woke up in that town and in that procession.
The supernatural and Catholic traditions intertwine in this haunting tale. Jun would often dream of himself walking through the halls of the town Church with candles burning and statues of Jesus Christ in motion. Jun and Teresa would have their first conversation outside the town church, in the middle of the Holy Week. Seances, traditionally a pagan ritual, is incorporated within the strict Catholic tapestry by invoking prayers, saints, and primary religious figures into the spirit-calling. Houses are adorned with saints and religious icons. Dr. Torres' rustic manor is given character by the odd yet familiar mixture of deterioration and Catholic imagery.
It is this jarring characteristic that paves way to de Leon's storytelling. Doy del Mundo and Gil Quito's screenplay merely outlines the plot, but it is with de Leon's cinematic mastery that the quiet unfolding of the mysteries behind Rosa's death truly work. It can be observed that there is precision in de Leon's filmmaking. The editing (by Ike Jarlego, Jr.) is not fast tracked but instead de Leon knows exactly the amount of time one can sink his senses on the beautifully haunting imagery her presents. The cinematography (by Ely Cruz and Rody Lacap) is intelligently done --- de Leon frames his scenes with surprising expertise (especially for a first-time director; although he is also a cinematographer) and also lights his scenes to dictate an eerie and sprawling canvass of subtle yet effective horror. Mel Chionglo's production design lends an air of authenticity to the feature. Also, Max Jocson's beautifully orchestrated musical score is so convincing that it mostly echoes through the dimly-lit halls of Dr. Torres' manor.
In circular fashion, de Leon ends his film also with a seance --- this time, to reveal the highly anticipated cause of Rosa's death. I thought there wasn't any conclusive character to de Leon's ending, and I mostly fault the screenplay for that. While the seance is played out expertly and the folds and conflicts of the characters are neatly placed in proper order, the ending feels flat and distant. It is when the film ended that I discovered that the film's main fault is that it never invested in any true emotions. De Leon's technical mastery is diluted by a screenplay that presents relationships ushered from the vast supernatural canvass of the film that are basically shallow. Jun suddenly returns home from an unexplained absence, yet despite the many scenes showing him taking care of his father, the paternal relationship lacks a depth that could've made the ending more poignant. Jun's encounters with Teresa seemed to played out as acts of supernatural (or divine) interventions to mete out justice, but what was initially could've been conceived as romantic, is suddenly dropped and left out to much dismay. Teresa's relationship with her mother is shown as shaky and accompanied by a guarded jealousy against the more pious older sister, but such conflict was never truly explored.
Itim's understanding of cultural and religious beliefs interweaves with in a plot that aches with class injustice, social norms, and Catholic traditions. Without such understanding, the supernatural features of the plot wouldn't have worked, and wouldn't have had the same impact as it has now. Despite the lack of humanism in de Leon's initial feature, I can't deny the greatness of this film.