Confessional (Jerrold Tarog & Ruel Dahis Antipuesto, 2007)
(Spoiler Alert: Please be warned that the plot is discussed in detail)
"We're not a country. We are scattered tribes of insecure liars, except for me," proudly declares Lito Caliso (Publio Briones III), ex-mayor of an unnamed Mindanao town who relocates to Cebu, as he guides Ryan Pastor (David Barril), editor-turned-documentary filmmaker who is obsessed with the truth, to an undisclosed location where he will be taught how to do his craft. Lito is of course referring to the Philippines, an uneasy group of islands glued together by a flimsy sense of nationalism. Lito prides himself of seeing through the colonially-established concept (or fiction, a more-suited word) of nationhood, and declares himself the most truthful of these so-called "Filipinos." Truth, we find out by then, is a virtue that cannot be equated with goodness. The harbinger of truth in the film is an overweight, hedonistic and unflinchingly murderous politician. Through the conversations and the encounters, Ryan finds out that truth is in fact very overrated, if not a totally negligible and worthless idealism.
Confessional is Jerrold Tarog (an acclaimed music scorer, who also writes, edits, and directs) and Ruel Antipuesto's first try in directing a full feature film. Interestingly though, the film does not show any sign of first-time jitters, whether it be in the technical or the creative side (eventually winning for its makers the top prize in CinemaOne's film festival). For a film budgeted at around one million pesos (or around $23,000) sourced from CinemaOne's yearly grants to deserving independent features, it is handsomely made, surprisingly sleek and very entertaining. Considering that the story spans from Manila to Cebu City (with a pertinent sideplot set in Mindanao) and involves currently sensitive topics such as government corruption, election fraud, and almost everything that continue to ail the nation, the film does not belabor (except for the occasional breaks to social-and-political-philosophical oratorical suggestions) but instead functions sufficiently with a very informal structure of an amateur documentary, complete with pseudo-realistic sequences depicting relationship quips (girlfriend-boyfriend jealousies) and sudden breaks to computer-animated visual embellishments (like in the lopsided badminton game between Ryan and his girlfriend).
Confessional is of course a mockumentary; or more accurately, fictional character Ryan Pastor's documentary on the Sinulog Festival that fortuitously morphs into an extended video-opportunity for a politico to confess his sins to humanity before he is sent to the afterlife by opponents who want him dead. Because of its genre and structure, the film, all at the same time, mocks, criticizes, and also celebrates cinema as messenger of truth. Ryan, as editor for films, has mastered the medium as a means of twisting reality, as expressed in a way he edits a wedding video where emotions are emphasized by incorporating a scene not originally part of; it's a mere white lie in the arena of cinematographic lie-crafting (as opposed to Michael Moore and other documentary filmmaker's guiltless provocations crafted from expertly edited footages) but builds into a frustration and a blind of obsession for truth.
"Lies + Lies = Truth," the equation is in itself a glaring fallacy but the thesis statement summarizes the film's rollercoasting barrage of small and large inconsistencies, from the innocent lies made to save a volatile romantic relationship to a history built upon on piles and piles of inaccuracies (like the Sinulog, which evolved from its Christian-colonial roots into a very commercial endeavor, forever twisting the event's meaning). It is no longer surprising that when Ryan is faced with truth, his reaction reeks of uncertainty and discomfort, like truth has a reputation of a mere urban legend or an extinct species of ideal in a country that thrives and celebrates without it.
Tarog and Antipuesto's first film has an undoubtedly cynical world-view, presented so matter-of-factly that the pessimism seems to breeze through (or perhaps, the country is such in a low point of its history that the brazen suggestions of Confessional no longer feel pressing but still very relevant). However, they not only tackle the moral depletion of Philippine society through the camera of a fictional filmmaker, they also eschew the supposed journalistic role of cinema, how such is eventually inexistent in a determination of collective corruption. Recorded in front of our eyes is a man shot in the head. Death is the truest thing in the world as one is either alive or not. How should one feel about it? Shocked, scared, or alarmed? The film ends with an answer to that question and the viewer can interpret it in any way he wants. I saw the ending as Ryan's eventual cure of his unhealthy obsession with the truth, after a coarse and chance encounter that left him dismayed.
This review is also published in The Oblation.