The Venice Film Festival 2019 ran from August 27 to September 7, and "Verdict" by first-time director Raymund Ribay Gutierrez was the only entry in the official selections from Southeast Asia.
It also won the Special Jury Prize in the Horizons Section (which ran parallel to the main section competing for the Golden Lion, which was won by Todd Phillips' "Joker" this year).
And this year, "Verdict" premieres in Philippine cinemas via the Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino, which runs until September 19, under the Sine Sandaan Showcase.
The movie starts with Joy and her daughter Angel enjoying a piece of cake one night until her petty crook husband, Dante, came home drunk and angry. In no time, he was brutally beating Joy up for no apparent reason.
Severely injured, Joy quickly grabbed Angel and ran off to the safety of the nearby police outpost. From there, this film then followed Joy's quest for justice step by step in detail, from Dante's arrest all the way to criminal court.
Watching this film was not easy. Director Gutierrez' camera was constantly in motion and very shaky. The focus was very tight, with everything shot very up-close we can practically see every pore on the actors' faces. Immediately, this cinematographic style called to mind that of acclaimed Filipino director Brillante Mendoza.
As the credits rolled at the end, Mendoza's name was actually shown as executive producer. It came as no surprise upon later research that Gutierrez learned his directorial ropes under Mendoza. Even the style of acting from his actors was Mendoza-esque -- very gritty and realistic, as if there was no acting at all.
This role of Joy should be the most intense role Max Eigenmann ever had in her career. Her scenes with the swollen face were painful to watch. It was so ironic the indignities she had to undergo from the various authorities while in that damaged physical situation.
She had a scene where the camera was following her as she was walking out on the streets, a scene that called to mind Jaclyn Jose's Cannes-winning final walk in Mendoza's "Ma'Rosa." (I was half-expecting Joy to stop and eat a stick of fish balls herself, and of course she didn't.)
Kristoffer King was a terrifying presence as the pathological abuser and liar Dante. King had been mentored by Mendoza practically his whole career and he is indeed a master of not acting, and just being the character.
Here, King's Dante reeked of evil even by just his mere look. Unease was felt even during his quiet moments with his innocent daughter or with his ever-supportive mother (Dolly de Leon). King's passing last February 23 marked the loss of one talented young character actor. This was his final feature film role.
As a Filipino, watching this procedural film will make you fraught with frustration at the quality of the justice system expected to uphold our rights and keep us secure. If you are poor, even if you had been so obviously wronged, everyone who was supposed to help you seemed so inefficient and cold -- the barangay officials, the police, the medics, the fiscals, and even the judge.
Sadly, you just take it as it is. You simply can't do anything about it. This Santos vs. Santos case was filed in urban Mandaluyong, and it went like this. How much worse could we expect in rural courts?
The grueling pace of the film felt real-time, as slowly as these cases would take in actuality. That immersive nature was why it packed such a mean punch to our gut.
This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."