STOP10: 'Himala' and the epic business of faith

It is with hushed admiration that I approach the jaw-dropping 1982 classic Himala (or Miracle in Tagalog), widely deemed to be among the Phillippines’ top films. The film is known to offer up an early but definitive career-making vehicle for Nora Aunor, one of the Phillippines’ most celebrated actresses. It is also feted for powerfully exposing the ways that our most cynical or desperate sides emerge when we are offered the possibility of religious intervention. Yet what most astounds me about the film’s legacies, however, is that it isn’t quite what you would expect as either a Nora Aunor vehicle, or as biting social commentary. On the contrary, Himala offers up far more than immediately meets the eye.

The Passion of Nora Aunor

Perhaps the most fascinating part of Aunor’s role in Himala is that it never asks her to act up as much of a storm as its iconic status implies. Certainly, as the film begins, the role of Elsa seems like it might ask Aunor to channel the kind of preternatural forces that haunt Renee Falconetti as the title character of Carl Dreyer’s 1928 classic The Passion of Joan of Arc. As a solar eclipse blankets Elsa’s hometown, Himala opts for a bold underexposure: the film leaves Aunor’s face in near-full shadow, glinting like fossilised charcoal. When Elsa falls to her knees, drawn to the call of some magnificent vision we cannot see, we are forced to stare into a facial close-up on Aunor that is so murky and ink-black, it is pierced through only with the tears in her eyes and the glimmer of her teeth.

Many actresses would beg for a role that required them to carry a film in this stark silent-film register, and I would have gladly watched an entire feature that demanded this of Aunor. Yet Himala has other designs for her. After the eclipse subsides, Elsa loses her otherworldly aura and takes on a new mission: to convince her fellow villagers that she has seen a vision of the Virgin Mary. However, back in Elsa’s subdued human form, Aunor cannot rely as much on the concerted efforts of the film’s direction, cinematography and score to boost her iconicity. Instead, she is forced to call on other aspects of herself that don’t seem immediately like a natural fit, and that yet contribute some of Himala’s most rewarding contradictions.

For one, the role of Elsa requires Aunor to be a believable religious icon, and yet, emerged from the darkness, Aunor’s face doesn’t appear built to be iconic in the way one might expect from such an established star. Sure, she is blessed with high cheekbones and that signature left-cheeked mole. However, in the film, Aunor’s cheeks are padded like a chinchilla’s, as though she were a teenager who hasn’t yet shed her puppy fat (even though she was almost thirty when she played the role). This makes her Elsa appear to be quite the unlikely conduit for her God-sent revelations. But this apparent ill-fittedness turns out to pay unexpected dividends for Aunor in the part, because the film wants us—like Elsa’s fellow villagers—to remain at least partially skeptical of Elsa’s claims to be a latter-day messiah.

Indeed, the other hurdle faced by Aunor is that the role asks her to remain opaque and enigmatic about Elsa’s thoughts and motivations, even as she clues us into how Elsa is feeling. Did Elsa truly cross paths with the Virgin Mary, or does she merely claim to have done so for her own reasons? Some critics and viewers might be inclined to respond to that question in one way or the other. But I love that Aunor staunchly refuses to. She maintains Elsa as a neutral slate on which we can project either answer, even if that blankness can seem confounding or under-acted to us on our first viewing.

Under Religious Influence

Aunor’s astute treatment of Elsa also carries over to Ishmael Bernal’s film as a whole, which some viewers might imagine to be a searingly cynical take on religion—or, more accurately, in how people relate to it. After all, Himala is near relentless in showing how ugly humanity can get when faith is put on the line. On one hand, the film shows how sceptically Elsa is received when she first reveals her vision. “You don't want to believe me,” she tells her adoptive mother, and the film answers by cutting to a scene of Elsa being whipped with branches, to exorcise the demons that have possessed her. Priests are shown to interrogate Elsa or advise her fellow villagers against believing the rumours, almost seeming to fear less that she is possessed than that the rumours might be true.

On the other hand, once word gets out that Elsa has gained healing powers, we see everyone swing to the opposite extreme, with throngs of the sick and poor gathering at Elsa's door, all clamouring for their turn to be blessed by her touch. Some people grow eager to capitalise on Elsa's newfound celebrity, selling the water she has touched, appointing themselves as her protectors, or trying to use her to get re-elected. Others make use of the reinvigorated traffic into the village, picking pockets or establishing seedy cabarets.

Many of these scenes can be interpreted as satirical, especially when Himala veers into a more tragic register, and when Elsa delivers a monologue near the film's end that can be easily be taken at face value. But the aftermath of that monologue, an epic scene on par with the classic Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin or the shocking ending of Robert Altman's Nashville, shows us that the film has other ideas: we observe as a multitude of followers, some injured, some baffled, shuffle on their knees towards the peak of a hill. As Himala tries to remind us, we all yearn to be part of something bigger than us, and satirising faith does not render it any more void than any number of Annie Halls or 500 Days of Summers can render love void. We simply shuffle on.

Check out which other films made our list of the 10 Most Life-Changing Southeast Asian films.

Written by Colin Low

Colin has written film reviews for SINdie since 2009.
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