HONOR THY FATHER (Erik Matti, 2015)
There are great films, and there are really great films. Erik Matti's "Honor Thy Father," from a script by Michiko Yamamoto belongs to the latter. The film doesn't only feature a career-defining performance from John Lloyd Cruz, but functions as well as a macro analysis on religious fanaticism, fraud and ultimately, the Philippines as a predominantly patriarchal society, at least as what the film suggests.
In fact the concept of patriarchy figures prominently in our cinematic history, like in Marilou Diaz-Abaya's "Karnal" and Mike De Leon's "Kisapmata." Coincidentally, the late Vic Silayan happened to portray the father in said films, an authoritarian brute whose word is law in both instances.
Or even in contemporary cinema, such as in Jun Lana's "Barber's Tales," where male figures rule basically all aspects of society. Another example is Mike Tuviera's "The Janitor," where blind obedience to one's father or father figure is the biggest crime.
In "Honor Thy Father," two persons govern the fate of couple Edgar (Cruz) and Kaye (Meryll Soriano)- their respective fathers. Although in absentia, these characters haunt Edgar and Kaye's choices like a wound that refuses to heal. Then there's Tirso Cruz III as Bishop Tony, the leader of the Church of Yeshua, our Savior, or COYS. To his flock, he is their father, a figure of reverence, whose every word is sacred.
There is a flip side to this coin, however. In all of the films mentioned above, including "Honor Thy Father," women play a crucial role in the development of events. A woman (Cecille Castillo) caused the downfall of Barrio Mulawin in "Karnal;" likewise, the daughter (Charo Santos) drove the father to madness in "Kisapmata;" in "Barber's Tales," women rose up against tyranny and oppression; in "The Janitor," both a pregnant woman and a whore held the key to the truth; in "Honor Thy Father," Edgar's mother (Perla Bautista) held the family together throughout the trying times.
One may argue that the Philippines is fast becoming a matriarchal society, if it isn't already, because of the higher opportunity afforded to women today compared to say, 30 years ago. We already elected two women presidents, and currently we have a chief justice, a justice secretary and an ombudsman who are all female. But from what all these films tell us, male influence still remains significant in decision-making, from the family up to higher forms of institutions.
"Honor Thy Father" also rattles religious fanaticism, and the way Matti mounts his scenes portraying the fervent followers of the Church of Yeshua is almost comical, unflinching even- perhaps the only source of relief in the entire film. Bishop Tony preaches about the Bible, and his "visions," and how the Church needs money to build a new home, while the members of his congregation blindly say "yes" or "Amen." But not Edgar. From the get-go, he is portrayed as a skeptic, the thorn among the roses.
Matti boldly asserts the parallelism between the Ponzi scheme which wreaked havoc on Edgar and Kaye's family, and the Church of Yeshua which shamelessly collects money from its flock. There is a part of me that wants to believe that Bishop Tony could be the real deal, and that the Church of Yeshua is legit, especially since Tirso Cruz III plays Bishop Tony so effectively charismatic that perhaps, he has the best of intentions for the Church. But when you see armed men guard the Bishop's house like a fortress, and people counting money on a long table as if a drug operation, the satire could not have been more overt.
I can securely say that "Honor Thy Father" is Erik Matti's most accomplished work, his magnum opus- polished in every aspect and uncompromising in its vision. The story is a roller coaster ride of uncertainties, in which Matti succeeds in disrobing man down to his baser instincts at every turn. Such is the nature of desperation. However, the film also draws beauty from a family's strength in the face of adversity. In our culture, no matter the circumstances, more often than not, family is still family, and blood is thicker than water.
John Lloyd Cruz slips into a complex portrayal of a man driven to the extremes. As Edgar, Cruz walks the line between an honest provider and his family's protector, against all odds. All morals be damned, Edgar must save his family from danger, and Cruz channels his character's fears and determination with compelling results.
Meryll Soriano also displays considerable dedication to her role as Kaye, the wife and mother pitted in unimaginable horror because of her blind obedience and ignorance. That particular scene where she cries in the bathroom after she found out about their family's ordeal is a solid show of talent.
The supporting performances are all equally powerful, from Tirso Cruz III as Bishop Tony to Perla Bautista's Nanang, to Dan Fernandez as Edgar's elder brother. But the real revelation among the supporting characters is William Martinez as Pastor Obet, Bishop Tony's second-in-command. Martinez shows his character's humility with care and restraint, and Pastor Obet even serves as the film's conscience. Suddenly, I had a longing for Ishmael Bernal's "Manila by Night" upon seeing Martinez's inspired performance in this movie. Martinez played the polar opposite in "Manila by Night," as a wayward teenager. Of course, he was young then, but no less talented.
Has any other film portrayed the city of Baguio as a dark, ominous place? Cholo Laurel's "Nasaan Ka Man," quickly comes to mind, but aside from that, I can only think of Baguio as a beautiful place to fall in and out of love, as in Mike De Leon's timeless "Kung Mangarap Ka't Magising," and Antonette Jadaone's "That Thing Called Tadhana." Matti has made Baguio an eerie destination, the way Perci Intalan changed the face of Batanes in "Dementia." Every shot builds tension. The wide shot of the cemetery is particularly creepy.
"Honor Thy Father" should join the ranks of Lino Brocka's "Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang," and Ishmael Bernal's "Himala," films that challenge social conditions, as well as push the boundaries of filmmaking many steps further. Matti and company have created a film that reignites film's important role as a purveyor of change, aside from being an escapist vehicle, and in doing so, they will keep people talking about it for years to come.