Banal (Cesar Apolinario, 2008)
English Title: Holy
Had it been better funded, better directed and better acted, Cesar Apolinario's Banal (Holy) could have been more than a mere passable thriller. As it is, Banal is an utterly inconsistent thus disappointing film, one that attempts to tell a capably conceived story about two cops sitting on opposite ends of the moral spectrum coming to terms with their respective moralities, but failing miserably plainly because of its less-than-competent execution. Cris (Paolo Contis) and Jayson (Alfred Vargas) were classmates in SWAT training under Major Sagala (Christopher de Leon), infamous for his odd drinking habits (pouring liquor into cans of Coca Cola) and his unsavory methods in training his cadets. Cris is the incorruptible cop, often earning the ire of crooked powerful politicians. Jayson on the other hand is ambitious to the point of sacrificing his ideals for the sake of a few thousands of pesos pilfered during one of his raids. Despite their differences, the two cops form a friendship, bound to be tested when a plot to assassinate the visiting pope is discovered.
Banal is the first feature film for director Apolinario. His training as news reporter and documentarian for a local television network is both boon and bane. Not counting the several narrative liberalities made, it is quite noticeable that the film is aptly researched. There is a genuine effort in portraying the particular risks and hardships members of the SWAT go through especially in their difficult training sessions. Much more intriguing is that there are no pretenses of uprightness or nobility in the local police force in the film, unlike most other local films or shows that would always strive to put the government in a good light lest they incur the wrath of the politically-motivated censors board (Banal was actually given an X-rating before the censors changed its mind). There is always that swelling atmosphere of sickening bureaucracy and media hogging that overwhelms the quiet sacrifices of the cops in the field. Apolinario also has an eye for detail and knows where to place his camera for maximum effect, especially during key scenes. Journalism is a job that requires the keenest of attention and a good grasp of honesty. These virtues he probably learned from fervently gathering information on a certain lead or being on the field and catching sensational news as they happen. Unfortunately, these journalistic virtues aren't enough to make a good film.
It's quite obvious that Apolinario relies a lot from his actors and to give them due credit, leads Contis and Vargas render serviceable jobs. On the other hand, veteran actor De Leon, while the obvious scene stealer with his unmitigated blend of method acting and histrionics, falls short in terms of both subtlety and sincerity. Other than that one scene where his alcohol-addicted major defeatedly salutes his former cadets, De Leon's antics never really rise above plain play-acting. Supporting cast members like Paolo Paraiso as wooden comic relief and Cassandra Ponti as woodenly sobful wife fare much worse. It's a good thing that Pen Medina, who plays corrupt provincial Congressman Manalo, is allowed to liven up things a bit by converting an underwritten role into something else, a representation of everything that's gone wrong in the Philippines.
Sadly, none of Apolinario's actors are adept action stars. Contis is a child actor turned all-around thespian. Vargas started out doing sexy roles in movies before being given a break doing various roles in television. De Leon is predominantly a dramatic actor. It bears stressing that Apolinario cannot direct a decent action scene and I believe he knows this. For example, in what was supposed to be a precursor for an all-out brawl, Apolinario opts to forgo of the rumble and instead, cheatingly inserts a shot of an ambulance siren (to signify that the brawlers were probably hospitalized) before showing the aftermath of the affray. In a climactic sequence which further proves Apolinario's incompetence in directing action scenes, Major Sagala and Jayson are trying to diffuse a bomb before it reaches the pope's vehicle. Everything turns into an incomprehensible mess when Apolinario, with the help of horrendous editing, mixes archived footage of Pope John Paul's last visit to Manila (and all the while I thought this was a fictional future pope, especially since the production design hints of the present as the setting of the film), and a horribly directed and acted scene of Sagala hanging while shooting from the passenger's seat of a rapidly moving car. To add insult to injury, the action sequence ends in a computer generated explosion that is just unintentionally hilarious.
Had Apolinario the vision to get veteran action stars instead of former and present matinée idols, stars who are trained in daring stunts and could've mustered enough pulsating excitement to salvage these pitifully choreographed and visualized sequences, he could have successfully cloaked his inadequacies as director. Had Apolinario the discipline to hone his journalistic tendencies into his filmmaking without sacrificing narrative logic and had the producers the common sense not to rely on cheap computer graphics especially given their budgetary limitations and gone the traditional way of blowing up junk vehicles and using real fire or just refrain from spoon feeding their audience (like in one scene atop a building, wherein we hear the sounds of a helicopter engine. It could have stopped there but instead a badly rendered computer-generated helicopter embarrassingly emerges from nowhere, sending chills down my spine, not in a good way), Banal could have been the Filipino mainstream movie all of us have been waiting for, a fresh yet still very commercial police story that actually has something relevant and interesting to say. As it is, Banal is one overpraised blunder.
This review is also published in The Oblation.