Festivals, Reviews

QCinema 2022: ‘Elehiya’ Review—Grief and Anger in the Crumbling Remains of Imperial Power

Elehiya is a 2022 film directed by Loy Arcenas about a grieving widow (played by the late Cherie Gil) who finds herself returning to her husband’s family’s estate on an island in the Philippines to scatter his ashes. During her time back, she is restless about days lost and left behind, and she plays out a fantasy of motherhood with a potential bastard (played by Ross Pesigan) of her husband.

This is a movie preoccupied with the complicated grief that the main protagonist, Doctor Celine de Miranda, feels about their husband. She is understandably sad and alone now that he’s passed, but there’s also a lot of unresolved anger that bubbles up in her interactions with her brother-in-law (played by Miguel Faustmann) and the help that came with the estate. 

There are broad overtures in the early parts of the movie pertaining to how grief affects us and how it manifests in others. The main character is constantly surrounded by the decay of a colonial estate in the country, illustrating that grief in the quiet creaks and empty spaces of the giant house. She has conversations with pictures of him where she argues as if he were alive, spewing out her anger and confusion and sadness like a leaky faucet unable to help itself. And there are a lot of quiet moments where she stares at the sea grieving for a better time. 

It’s a lot of quiet moments that add up to very little, the cinematography showing these bright vistas and panoramic beach views that feel empty. It forces Gil to carry the film’s early thematic focus by imbuing life to the moments of her staring into space, delivering these rambling monologues that come to life more because of Gil’s performance than of any substance in them. 

The film does pick up later on once Celine realizes that one of the help currently living in the house, Jasper, might be the bastard child of her late husband. She becomes preoccupied with a fantasy of being his mother, which can border on uncomfortably incestuous, and which leads her to commit heinous actions in the name of living out that fantasy. 

I do think that Arcenas and co-writer Raquel Villavicencio have a broader point about colonialism in the Philippines in their exploration of Celine’s grief. Setting the film on a formerly-rich estate being sold off to foreigners feels like an intentional choice to foreground this theme. 

The de Mirandas, who appear to be landed hacienderos with noticeable accents and white complexions, continue to lord over the island and its inhabitants despite their glory days being very much behind them. And though Gil’s character Celine is a de Miranda by marriage only, she has the very same entitlement and better-than-thou attitude towards the inhabitants of the island despite admitting to her brother-in-law that she actually veers closer to middle-class in the United States. 

That choice regarding Celine’s background definitely gave a more complicated picture of colonialism in the country, showing that even those considered landed gentry in the Philippines could be seen as lesser-than in the face of higher colonial powers. It also depicts Celine’s attitude towards the de Miranda’s help as a form power-tripping, as if this is the only place where she can feel the power she once had in the past during the waning glory days of the de Mirandas.

The fact that Jasper, the alleged bastard child, is actually offspring of the help—a family that has been with the estate for generations and is treated poorly by Celine and her brother-in-law throughout the film—comes off as pointed commentary towards the lack of values that come with being an imperialistic power and how they would exploit the naivety and lack of power that come with being a native of the country. 

It’s there in the scenes with Celine and her brother-in-law, where they play around and talk about the dynamics of unequal romantic and sexual relationships Filipinos have with foreigners; and it is definitely there in the dynamic that Celine has with the estate’s help, for whom she has little respect except for the potential bastard child of her husband. 

She doesn’t think about the power that she has over them, but her actions and words betray a belief that it is deserved and unquestioned. Every time her bubble with the bastard child gets threatened by his actual mother, she always reverts back to that uneven dynamic to treat her poorly as if reasserting the power she has over them. Eventually she uses it to do a heinous but confusing act that really pushes how much you end up sympathizing with the character during the film. 

Despite all of these themes, the film feels a little undercooked, and I do wonder if the choice of putting our perspective character as the widowed wife of a wealthy estate child put the film in a blind spot; it would have been better served from the perspective of Jasper or his family. 

Elehiya has broad and worthy ideas about grief and colonialism that it wants to tackle, but the screenplay’s unfocused approach to the subject and its slow pacing muddies up what it wants to say. In the end, it feels like nothing has really been explored in the inner lives of the protagonists, and all we have left are empty stares in the distance mimicking the movements of grief that were once felt.

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