Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Pinoy Film Focus: Itim (1976)

(Black / Rites of May)

Director: Mike de Leon

Writers: Clodualdo del Mundo Jr., Gil Quito

Cast: Tommy Abuel, Charo Santos, Mario Montenegro, Mona Lisa

Runtime: 105 minutes

When regular Filipino moviegoers are asked what they think is the best Filipino horror film ever made, they often mention such classics as Shake Rattle & Roll and Tiyanak, alongside modern box-office hits like Feng Shui and Sukob. Few, if any at all, mention Itim, the first full-length film of highly acclaimed filmmaker and player in Philippine cinema's Second Golden Era, Mike de Leon. Notwithstanding the fact that most modern moviegoers are sadly ignorant of de Leon's oeuvre, more so his first film, Itim is not commonly lumped together with the horror films that the local industry has healthily churned out because of the subtlety of its horrific elements, which is perhaps its greatest strength.

But a horror film it is, and such an effective one at that! Where most horror films, local and otherwise, have gone the way of jolts and shocks to scare their audience, Itim goes for atmosphere. The chills here are genuine, aided to a great extent by the sparse scoring and the low-key lighting. Itim, which in English means "black," is pervasive throughout the film, from its cinematography to its story.

The film begins with a seance, immediately setting the dark, other-wordly chills that would permeate throughout. Manila-based photojournalist Jun (Tommy Abuel) returns to his hometown in Bulacan to visit his ailing father and document the Holy Week rites. He thereafter moves through a world of religious icons, lust-driven murder, and possessions by restless spirits. The latter two are effective, though low-key, taking a backseat to the rather unique Filipino horror of Catholic rites and fanaticism. If there is anything that Filipino horror filmmakers could play upon to distinguish our horror cinema from those of our Asian neighbors, it would be that religious fervor and the dependence on santos (depictions, usually statues, of religious icons). Itim does it in spades; a particularly chilling scene here is where Jun has a nightmare of a roomful of santos coming to life and attacking him. Perhaps no other film has used this tool since Itim, or at least nowhere near as effectively.

Itim would be the first of Mike de Leon's cinematic jewels. That he started with a horror film is interesting, given how most other auteurs would make theirs after they have established their careers with the more usual genres. He would later re-visit the genre with the brilliant Kisapmata (In Just the Wink of an Eye; 1981), which is a story of familial violence and sadism that many critics consider to be even more of a horror film than Itim. Nevertheless, Itim gives us an early indication of the artistry and mastery of the craft that de Leon, formerly a cinematographer to revered Lino Brocka, is well loved for by cineastes.
Itim is easily a top-caliber ghost story and an excellent example of Filipino film overall.

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