Altar (Rico Maria Ilarde, 2007)
Anyone who has watched Rico Maria Ilarde's more recent films would notice that all the protagonists of his bizarre tales are quintessential Filipino men, handsome, able-bodied, yet hinting of deeply rooted hesitations (may it be of an uncertain future, a criminal past, or sins of the family) that are exploited by the fantastic and often horrific circumstances they fatedly figure in. In Babaeng Putik (Woman of Mud, 2001), roughly masculine actor Carlos Morales plays Mark, a graduating medical student who spends some time in his uncle's remote property to assess his future, only to fall for a woman that emerges from a plant and be pitted against a terrifying monster. In Sa Ilalim ng Cogon (Beneath the Cogon, 2005), Yul Servo plays Sam, an ex-convict being hunted by both the police and a band of criminals who ends up in an abandoned mansion which houses both a lovely damsel and a murderous mutant. Even in Aquarium, the middle segment of horror omnibus Shake, Rattle and Roll 2k5 (2005) which Ilarde directed, Ogie Alcasid plays a father, suspected of philandering by his wife but is really hiding a family secret, who acquires a condominium unit for his family. Included in the unit is an aquarium, with a creepy mask as its centerpiece, which mysteriously murders everyone that gets near to it.
Ilarde's men fortuitously end up in places where concepts of reality are discarded and replaced with elements more suited in sinister fairy tales and dark fables. These locations, like the men they attract, are far removed from the preoccupations of the daily grind and harbor well-guarded histories. They seem to belong to another dimension, to another world. The men step foot into these places, in an effort to momentarily rid themselves of their troubled past. These places turn out to be temporary refuge to the men they lure. However, aside from threats from the local monstrosities, there seems to be no real risk involvedr. Ilarde's films turn out to be imaginatively crafted fairy tale films.
Altar, Ilarde's latest, seems to be a mere reiteration of Ilarde and co-screenwriter Mammu Chua's tried and tested formula. The protagonist Anton (model turned reality TV star turned movie actor Zanjoe Marudo) is a professional boxer who accidentally kills an opponent in one match, forcing him to retire from the sport. Chronically unemployed, he and Erning (Nor Domingo), another jobless man he meets while in line, accept a job to fix a house located in the remote outskirts of Manila. The foreman (Dido dela Paz) warns them of the basement, which houses a mysterious altar. Moreover, stories of previous workers suddenly disappearing, nightly apparitions by a girl dressed in white and an attic with cross-shaped windows and doors adorned with carved Latin phrase indicate that the house is not an ordinary one. On a lighter note, the two find the loves of their life in the area, Angie (Dimples Romana) and Giselle (Kristalyn Engle), maids from a neighboring household. The film is shaped in the mold of an Ilarde horror: the man of deep hesitations is matched with a fantastic setting.
However, Altar takes a different, and in my opinion, more satisfying route. Anton is probably the most complicated Ilarde hero. He is undoubtedly virtuous but inhabits a simplistic moral landscape: of bad and good; and black and white. When faced with a situation wherein real world complexities of morality become apparent (he has killed a man in a match, a situation wherein his black-and-white morality cannot operate efficiently), he resigns. Impoverished, he is satisfied with jobs that will not require him to revisit the difficult questions of that life-altering dilemma. The house represents a vagueness of morality. Ilarde, of course uses both traditional Catholic and logical denominations and symbolisms that define good and evil: crosses and pagan artifacts, heaven and hell, innocence and ugliness, all respectively. As the story progresses, we, and Anton as well, become aware that the lines are not clear cut as they are actually treacherous and tricky. As it turns out, Anton is again faced with moral complexities wherein an erroneous appreciation of the vague lines that separate good and bad might cost him more than his life.
Anton never escapes from his fairy tale-location. He doesn't end up holding hands or exchanging romantic glances with the damsel he finds. Instead, he becomes one with the place, a key piece in that fantastic dimension. That final shot of Anton watching Angie and Giselle walk away from the cross-shaped window is unsettling. He knows fully well of the impossibility of happiness he most recently found in Angie. How did Anton end up in a situation of perpetual sorrow? It is due to his inability, his headstrong hesitation to morally evolve, leading to an erroneous call: of killing the man (a priest wearing ugly and devilish clothing) tasked of keeping the monster from escaping. His unseen act of heroism (sadly, Ilarde does not show the fight between Anton and the monster; Anton, being a titled boxer, I was expecting a lot of well-directed and well-choreographed fistfights given the fact that Ilarde has experience shooting action scenes) is only an avoidance of further trouble caused by his mistake.
Altar is most definitely a step-forward for Ilarde and Chua, surprising though since the film didn't cost too much and was riddled with several production quips (mostly due to the fact that the funding was sourced from CinemaOne, restricting some independence for the filmmakers). Instead of abandoning the niche for which they have grown accustomed to and comfortable with, they redefined themselves by furthering their interpretation of the genre with conflicts that details astounding depth and maturity. That said, Altar might very well be my favorite Ilarde.
This review is also published in The Oblation.