Source: Variety, Wednesday, January 26, 1983
French-trained Filipino director Ishmael Bernal has finally reached his creative peak and total acceptance in the Philippine film industry when HIMALA swept the major awards at the recent Metro Manila Film Fest and then was invited to prestigiously open the 1983 Manila International Film Festival. Bernal has long been neglected and he is the most-nominated Manila film maker for the local critics' derby. His MANILA AFTER DARK, however, won best picture last year.

HIMALA has also been touted as the first Tagalog picture to have been produced by the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines, an arm of the annual MIFF for 3,000,000 pesos. It will circulate to five leading international filmfests, including the forthcomng Berlin Film Festival, then to Cannes' Directors' Fortnight.

The film bitingly, hypnotically and realistically captures the mixed-up and often confused rural Philippine traditions that are full of contradictions quite similar to what was shown in Francesco Rosi's CHRIST STOPPED AT EBOLI. It is a situation where religion, fanaticism, superstition and cliched soap opera characters intermix. The film opens in the dappled and moody darkness of an eclipse which sets the tone of the supernatural theme that's been blended with the harsh realities experienced by a young girl who gets victimized by circumstances beyond her control. It is rich in details of backward village life that should fascinate foreign viewers intrigued with exotic Third World poverty, hunger, oriental funeral services, physical ugliness and handicapped human bodies cinematically framed by the magic of faith healing as its main theme.

The provincial town setting is the sleepy town of Cupang (shot on location in lovely Ilocos Norte) which was supposedly been cursed after driving away a leper. The small, dissipated and forgotten dusty town without rainfall awakens to exploitation and commercialism when an innocent girl called Elsa (Nora Aunor) claims to have seen an apparition of the Blessed Virgin. She later acquires healing powers. Along the lines of Lourdes, the whole village becomes a bustling commercial venue for mass-produced statue saints and bottled holy or tonic water. In later excursions into subplots, a close friend of Elsa who becomes a woman of easy virtue returns to Cupang, a virginal sister who is totally devoted to the religious mission, some enterprising matrons, then a kaleidoscopic look at hundreds of sick people with diseased bodies. A pivotal character is a cynical and young film director (Spanky Manikan) with a conscience. The latter becomes obsessed in capturing Elsa's healing sessions on celluloid which leads to his candidly catching on film (by accident) a dark secret of Elsa, a secret which prompted the suicide of her sister.

Here is an eloquent, powerful film that is full of grandeur and simple segments. It shows an atmospheric environment where illiterate but adulating, praying crowds desperate for a cure can be a hostile mob when the miracle they crave for doesn't materialize.

Nora Aunor as Elsa gives a sensitive, polished and highly passive and consistently low-key performance. She is letter-perfect for the role. Meanwhile, Gigi Duenas (a stage actress) as a girl on the wrong side of the tracks who operates a cabaret-whorehouse is singularly brilliant and provides a striking contrast to the spiritual life of Elsa.

If there is anything wrong with the production, it is just the length and repetitious sequences.

Towards the middle, a weird and starling denouement is shared with the viewers to sustain their high level of fascination. The Tagalog screenplay is suitably hard boiled and not affected as in common local features. There is an excellent eerie soundtrack music.

HIMALA is the kind of quality festival film  that brightens the Philippines' tarnished name in the field of films geared for international consumption and release. The picture brings out the fact there are more Filipino directors to discover. - Mel