Philippine genre-meister Erik Matti unfurls a 1940s-set tale of novice priests confronting a child-devil and their own inner demons during their weeklong rural retreat.
At the center of Seclusion is a self-styled savior who feeds on people's blind faith, and whose aspirations are to create a future where "nobody could tell the difference between good and bad." Philippine filmmaker Erik Matti's devil-infested horror flick might be set in a far-flung monastery in 1947, but it could easily serve as a parable of how the world stands in 2016, a year where amoral populists have found favor with impressionable populations worldwide.
While having already used his previous films to chastise the rampant corruption and cynicism in his country — a hitman serving a power-seeking politician in the thriller On the Job; seemingly pious churchgoers persecuting a down-and-out couple in the social drama Honor Thy Father — Matti offers up an even more furious fable in his new film. Revolving around an evil child's ever-spiraling attempts to lead four young priests astray, Seclusion packs powerful political punches beneath its swathes of gloom and gore.
Aesthetically, the pic proves yet again Matti's mastery in producing effective genre cinema. Set mostly within the confines of a rickety house in the middle of nowhere, the film provides chilling bursts of outright shock and sepia-tinged, creepy atmospherics. Unflinching in its darkness, it spirals toward an all-out horrifying climax — and boasts a disturbing coda which, like in The Omen or Infernal Affairs, could be considered a social allegory about how good doesn't necessarily defeat evil.
Seclusion should score excursions to fantasy-themed fests after its bow at the inaugural edition of Macau's International Film Festival. What is perhaps more interesting is how the film — with its subversion of Christian iconography and a villain with a mesmerizing personality not unlike Philippine strongmen of past and present, from Ferdinand Marcos to Rodrigo Duterte — will perform in Matti's home country. The movie will debut there at the Metro Manila Film Festival, which runs during the Christmas holidays.
The film's title refers to the (perhaps fictional) conditions novice Philippine deacons have to endure at a weeklong retreat before they can be ordained as priests. And that's where Miguel (Ronnie Alonte) is headed, and all is not well in the world around him. His country has hardly recovered fully from the devastation and trauma of the second World War, and the land is awash with hunger, poverty and madness. As he treks into the forests, he runs into a farmer wandering around in a helmet, hollering about the arrival of the Japanese army.
His observations of such chaos spur him to ask whether the retreat-house janitor is barricading the doors to prevent people from breaking in — to which the old man replies that, no, it's actually to prevent people from trying to get out. Indeed, the battle is within: Seemingly safely secluded from the mayhem outside, Miguel and his three fellow retreaters are all haunted by the "sins" they committed before committing themselves to the church.
And the one teasing these inner demons out of the men is a Mephisto named, perhaps ironically, Anghela (Rhed Bustamante). Having spent years performing miracles on the sick and the maimed, the young girl arrives at the retreat when her parents — two dodgy types who have lived off the "donations" offered by those seeking their daughter's help — are found bludgeoned to death at home.
Anghela slowly warps the mind of the four confused clergymen, evoking ghastly visions of the emaciated, the demented and religious statues that spring menacingly to life. Along the way, the men's suppressed guilt and desires explode into blood, violence and sex — that's where the devil's sidekick, a nun named Cecilia (Phoebe Walker), comes into play — and end up becoming a cathartic exercise leading them to convert to Anghela's cause.
Having previously worked on mostly rom-coms, Anton Santamaria writes a screenplay that's wobbly at parts. A parallel narrative — about a priest (Neil Ryan Sese) trying to debunk Anghela and Cecilia's saintly mystique — actually deflates the creepy claustrophobia within that house, especially when his investigation is wrought large onscreen with the superimposition of floating texts and photographs.
But credit to Matti for rescuing Seclusion out from the ordinary and its pulpy roots. Infusing the widescreen imagery with grainy textures reminiscent of the scary movies from the celluloid era, the director — in partnership with cinematographer Neil Derrick Bion and production designer Ericson Navarro — manages to establish a sufficiently eerie ambience for the evil spirits to wreak havoc in.
Seclusion drips with a ferocity about how false messiahs manipulate meek minds who, as the film's finale suggests, then propel even more malicious pretenders onto the pedestals of power. The film is Matti's call for an awakening, and it certainly stirs with spine-tingling moments aplenty.