Review: Verdict (2019)


Perhaps the most striking aspect of Verdict is its brutally honest depiction of Filipino judicial proceedings. From hiring lawyers to cross examinations, writer director Raymund Ribay Gutierrez is dedicated to blurring the lines between fiction and reality. It’s little wonder that many have already compared his works to that of Cinéma vérité. 

For this debut feature film, Gutierrez tackles the trials and tribulations that entail domestic abuse in the Philippines. The film takes its time to peel back the layers of a justice system that struggles to help those it is sworn to protect. While Gutierrez’s vérité approach lends itself to a gritty and realistic narrative, it can often make for a film that is as riveting as it is frustrating to watch.

Gutierrez has established himself as one of the most exciting writer directors coming out of the Philippines today. After starting out in graphic design, Gutierrez ventured into filmmaking under the tutelage of Brillante Mendoza, who’s best known for winning the Cannes Best Director award for his film, Kinatay, in 2009.

Ever since, Gutierrez’s films have gone on to premiere at some of the most prestigious film festivals across the globe. Most notably, his two short films, Imago and Judgement, were screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 2016 and 2018 respectively, with both competing for the coveted short film Palme d’Or. 

More recently, Verdict was screened in the Orizzonti (Horizons) section at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the Special Jury Prize. He is currently working on his second feature film. Quite the resume for a filmmaker who’s only 27 years of age.

Taking after his mentor, Gutierrez sought to explore social issues plaguing the Filipino community by telling the ‘found stories’ of individuals in a realistic light. With Verdict, he casts his light on the issue of domestic abuse, and the Kafkaesque justice system its victims must navigate in the fruitless pursuit of solace. It’s worth noting that Verdict is the feature length adaptation of his aforementioned short film, Judgement. 

Here, the victim is Joy, played by Max Eigenmann. The perpetrator is Joy’s husband, Dante, played by the late Kristoffer King. King’s performance was posthumously recognised by the Best Actor award at the Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF) last month

A violent encounter with her alcoholic husband one night leaves Joy and their daughter, Angel, battered and bruised. In response, Joy turns to the Filipino judicial system in the hope of finally putting Dante behind bars. What initially seems like an open-and-close case soon proves to be an uphill struggle, as the two parties square off in an endless battle of lawyers and witness statements. The courtroom quickly becomes their battlefield, and their child, the reward. 

Besides having scenes reshot and stretched out, the plot points of Verdict and its short film predecessor are practically identical. Arguably, Verdict does not so much seek to be an extension of Judgement as it is to be an expansion of it. 

For one, the film delves much deeper into the pathos of the antagonist, Dante. As much as viewers may want to see him behind bars, one can’t help but sympathise with his family, as they too are dragged into the affair. Boosted by King’s nuanced performance, we see his genuine concern for his mother and daughter, as well as his dogged denial to confess to his crime. 

It’s clear that Gutierrez didn’t want to paint anyone, not even the perpetrator, as a mere ‘villain’. In fact, the closest semblance to one is probably the judicial system as portrayed in the film. Bureaucratic and ill-equipped, it’s a system that would sooner serve a criminal paperwork than justice. The courtroom scenes are fittingly claustrophobic, with tight angles framing the victims who uncomfortably sit in the blistering heat.

There’s a courtroom sequence I wanted to highlight, where a man with tuberculosis is chased out. Before the judge orders him out, he asks for his case trial number to determine how far down the list he is. Though an abrupt moment, I saw it as a fascinating comparison of the justice system to a medical one. Gutierrez aptly paints the Filipino justice system as surgical and cold. Even the judge seems detached from the rulings he gives –– a cog in the machine churning out verdict after verdict, with little thought to what consequences may entail.

One of the most poignant shots is the very final one, which, without spoiling anything, speaks volumes for how such cases are treated and viewed under Filipino jurisdiction. By the time Verdict cuts to black, we are left with only dissatisfaction, which perhaps best mirrors Joy’s own feelings by the end of the film.

Gutierrez exercises incredible restraint in not pulling the camera back, even when we, as viewers, would rather avert our eyes from the horrors onscreen. It’s a harsh reminder of the realities that individuals like Joy have to face every day, and it’s a testament to Gutierrez’s dedication to projecting the true suffering such victims undergo. The film constantly denies its characters and its viewers relief, and this is where Verdict is at its best.

While there are welcome additions, not everything the film expands upon made for a more rewarding experience. Ultimately, the feature film takes 2 hours to get where its short film got in 15 minutes. That isn’t to say Verdict is any less effective than its predecessor. However, it also doesn’t prove itself to be that much more effective either. Like I said, this is a film that takes its time, and sometimes it may take more than it needs to convey what it wants to say. Although, in the director’s own words, “reality is our main objective”, and arguably, slow and tedious is the very reality of the Filipino justice system.

As his first feature length film, what Gutierrez has done here is nothing short of remarkable.  Although comparisons to his mentor are inevitable, I’d argue that the young director has started paving the way for a filmography he can truly call his own. While Verdict can be a slow-burn, it still solidifies Gutierrez’s name as one to look out for in the years to come.

Review by Charlie Chua
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