Short Film Review: Sanctissima (2015)

Warning: This article contains spoilers and discussion of abortion and rape

Watching Sanctissima by Kenneth Lim Dagatan left me feeling rather conflicted. While there were several instances of inspired narrative structure through effective use of editing and sound, the film seemed like a missed opportunity to examine a contemporary issue more critically.

Whether this was the director’s intention or not, there are several clear indications that the film is anti-abortion. Most notably, Marisa, the central figure of the film, feeds aborted foetuses to what is later revealed to be the child of a satanic demon figure. She promises the demon that she will continue to take care of the child, presumably by continuing her illegitimate abortion services in order to find it ‘food’. Through her, abortion thus seems to be an act of devil-worship. Secondly, the film ends with Marisa murdering a girl who sought an abortion because she was raped by a demon. This murder appears as an act of silencing victims of rape, and putting them at fault for terminating the resulting pregnancy.

Nevertheless, I am coming into this topic as someone who is not Filipino and whose views on abortion have been informed by living in countries where abortion is legal and cultural environments where this subject is not taboo. It is thus important to address the sociocultural context in which this film is made to give some background as to why the film would present this topic in such a negative light. In the Philippines, abortion is strictly illegal and the topic itself is highly stigmatized. As a result, there are many unofficial doctors who, much like Marisa in the film, illegally perform abortions, usually in highly unsafe and unsanitary conditions. According to a news report published in 2017 by Claudine Spera for The Guardian, an estimated 610,000 abortions happen per year through a variety of methods from ingesting herbs to pregnant women throwing themselves down staircases. As a result, three women die everyday in the Philippines from complications following a botched abortion.

When the film began with a shot of a woman screaming in pain, I thought that perhaps it would be a critique of this environment in which women have no other choice but to go to unlicensed individuals to terminate a pregnancy, gravely risking their own lives in the process. However, this was not quite the case. Instead, abortion is presented as a practice of voodoo or witchcraft and, through the numerous graphic shots of blood and waste, as something dirty. To me, presenting the issue of abortion from the lens of mysticism is an interesting artistic choice where the filmmaker has the potential to open up a dialogue about a contentious issue. This is not what I saw in Sanctissima. However, it is important to acknowledge that perhaps this is a dialogue that is very difficult to open up in the cultural context of the Philippines. I would imagine that the filmmaker would face censorship and other severe repercussions if it were their intention to be even slightly critical of abortion.

Where the film is successful is in its haptic emphasis on blood and human waste. Focusing our attention on the colour red, drawing parallels between dripping candle wax and blood. This heightens the sensory perception of the visuals, and thus emphasizes the pain of the process. However, for me, the film does not succeed beyond that because this emphasis on pain is framed within the narrative of abortion as devil-worship, making it seem evil and dirty. Depicting the issue in such a poor light is unsympathetic towards the plight of many women. Given the strict views against abortion in the Philippines, it seems all the more dangerous to make films that promote anti-abortion views, leaving little room for dialogue and debate.

The film can be viewed for free here.

Written by Tanvi Rajvanshi
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