Himala (1982): Movie Review
Himala (“Miracle”) is a Filipino film directed by the late Philippine National Artist Ishmael Bernal in 1982. Written by multi-award winner screenwriter Ricky Lee, the movie is based on a true incident of a teenage girl in Cabra Island in the province of Occidental Mindoro between 1966 and 1967. The movie’s heroine is played by Philippine superstar Nora Aunor whose portrayal of Elsa is considered by most Filipino critics as the best of her career.
Plot. The movie is set in the small arid town of Cupang. The people believes that the drought they are experiencing is the product of a curse placed upon the town for driving away a leper years before.
During a solar eclipse, a local young woman named Elsa claims to see an apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary atop a barren hill. Elsa then begins healing local residents and creates her “Seven Apostles” which includes her friends Chayong and Sepa and entrepreneur Mrs. Alba. Her miracle healing spreads around and soon pilgrims and tourists start arriving in Cupang to visit Elsa. Elsa’s house bears a big sign “Elsa loves you”. Because of the influx of tourists and patients, business in the town booms as people sell religious articles and offer accommodation. Around the same time, Elsa’s childhood friend Nimia, now a prostitute, returns and establishes a nightclub for foreign tourists, which is later ordered closed by the Seven Apostles.
Orly, a filmmaker, also arrives in Cupang to make a documentary about Elsa. One day, Orly confesses to the town’s Catholic priest that he has seen two drugged youths rape Elsa and Chayong on the hill. He holds a heavy guilt because he just filmed the incident instead of helping the two victims. Later, Chayong hangs herself because of shame, though what happened to her and Elsa was never revealed to the townspeople.
A cholera epidemic soon inflicts the people of Cupang and many have died including the children of Sepa. Elsa blames herself and stops healing; the authorities also quarantine her house.
Elsa then stars to show signs of pregnancy. Mrs. Alba then concludes that it is “Immaculate Conception” and proclaims Elsa to be truly blessed. As the same moment, thunders roar and a heavy downpour wets the dry landscape of Cupang. The people rejoice and are convinced that the curse has been lifted and that Elsa’s miracles have come back. Mrs. Alba and the people rush to Elsa’s house and called her out. Elsa then commands her followers to call everyone to assemble on the hill.
The sick, tourists, foreigners, media men and businessmen gather on the hill. In front of her congregation, Elsa finally professes that everything has been a lie – that there are no miracles, no sightings of the Virgin Mary, and the miracles that happened are only products of their invention. In the middle of her speech, a gun fires and hit Elsa in the chest. A stampede ensues, throwing everyone into a mass hysteria and many are badly injured.
Elsa breathes her last while Orly and other reporters capture her dying moments. The crowd cries and gravitates toward her after her death is announced. Her followers lift her lifeless body overhead, in a crucifix position, and take her to a waiting ambulance. The crowd wails more as they touch her body. Sepa then proclaims to the crowd that Elsa is a saint, a martyr for the world’s suffering. She leads the congregation in praying the Hail Mary on their knees going up the hill as the ambulance carrying Elsa drives away.
Watch "Himala" movie trailer here.
Commentary. Himala, for me, is one of the best Filipino films ever created. It was released during the period considered as the second golden age of Philippine movies. It was a tremendous critical and commercial success. Its achievement can be attributed to three main factors – its technical aspects, the lead actress Nora Aunor, and the storyline.
French-trained director Ishmael Bernal masterfully produced Himala using long single-shots. Right from the start, Bernal has created a perfect setting for the film. He portrayed here a Third World rural life against a backdrop of superstitious and fanatic small sleepy community. The movie opens in a depressing darkness of an eclipse which sets the tone of the movie’s supernatural theme. Bernal then slowly infuses the harsh realities and ugliness of backward village life. The details are very rich and events were perfectly timed. Its subtlety and the unfolding of subplots, along with intriguing visuals, draw audience from beginning to end. And in the final scene, when Elsa was shot and the people still believed in her despite the lies, was enigmatic and awe-inspiring.
Nora Aunor as Elsa was very brilliant, an actress of legendary proportions. She gave a sensitive and polished low key performance. But more than her acting, she struck as someone ordinary but believable. She depicts the image of a common Filipina, and along with her impressive talent, she knows how to draw mass sympathy. While watching the film, you do not see an actress, but someone like a neighbor talking to you, like a common person who can engage you in a natural but powerful way. Ms. Aunor has done countless award-winning portrayals, but as Elsa is her best.
Lastly, Himala succeeds in the commonality of its storyline. The movie is far from being mind-boggling that pieces have to be fitted in order to understand it as a whole. The story is explicit from the very beginning. It is about a poor community and the hope that a lying lass has brought to it. Though the film is centered on the issues of religious faith and faithlessness, it actually speaks about desires and yearnings. Elsa longs for attention and respect, Orly the filmmaker for prestige, Nimia the prostitute for trust and happiness, the sick for healing, Mrs. Alba and the businessmen for wealth, and the townspeople for hope and redemption. The sad truth depicted in the film is how people grab even the smallest opportunity just to satisfy that desire, but then suddenly breaks upon a little failure. And in the end, we invent things to fill in every longing in our heart.
Reception. The film premiered at the 1982 Metro Manila Film Festival where it swept 9 out of 11 awards including Best Actress for Nora Aunor, Best Screenplay, and Best Picture. It also bagged awards in the 1982 Catholic Mass Media Award.
In the international scene, the film was awarded with the Bronze Hugo prize at the 1983 Chicago International Film Festival. It also became the first and to date, the only Filipino film to be included in the “Competition Section” of the prestigious Berlin International Film Festival.
In 2008, Himala won the Viewer’s Choice Award for the Best Film of all Time from the Asia-Pacific Region in the CNN Asia Pacific Screen Awards.
Himala is best remembered for Elsa’s (and Aunor’s) most famous speech delivered on the hill:
"Walang himala!! Ang himala ay nasa puso ng tao, nasa puso nating lahat! Tayo ang gumagawa ng mga himala! Tayo ang gumagawa ng mga sumpa at ng mga diyos..." ("There is no miracle!! The miracles are in people's hearts, in all our hearts! We make the miracles! We are the ones who make curses, gods...")