Festivals, Reviews

QCinema 2022: ‘Itim’ and the Ghosts of Injustice

Itim (also known as The Rites of May), Mike de Leon’s feature film debut released in 1976, revolves around a photographer (Tommy Abuel) who returns to the province to be with his father (Mario Montenegro) and to document the town’s Holy Week practices. During this time, he finds himself drawn to Teresa (played by Charo Santos in her debut role), and they become entangled with the ghosts of their families’ past.

The best ghost stories tend to be rooted in unfinished business, in the quiet darkness that exists between the past and the present. The horror in ghost stories is as much rooted in the existential dread of the unknown—or worse, unknowable—world as it is about scaring people with spectral beings. You can see that in films like The Others (2001) or the Netflix TV adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House. Recently, director Scott Derrickson even played around with that thematic string in ghost stories for The Black Phone, to potent crowd-pleasing results.  

It’s an ethos that works effectively, and it’s one that Mike de Leon uses well in Itim, embodying a theme of injustice that can only be remedied by otherworldly powers. The ghost’s unfinished business here is a series of grave crimes that were covered up with ease due to the societal privilege of the criminal, and the screenplay written by Clodualdo Del Mundo Jr. and Gil Quinto thrills at the opportunity to build up that sense of dread and fear as we uncover each piece of the puzzle with patience and methodical grace.

It’s certainly an interesting choice to pair Jun, the photographer, with Teresa, since their chemistry together and the sense of unease that they feel around the world seems almost otherworldly (It’s because it is: their direct relation to the criminal and the ghost, respectively, appears to be what drew them together as much as it was mutual attraction). Tommy Abuel and Charo Santos certainly have a sense of camaraderie together that makes their budding friendship and trust in each other believable despite the short timeline and circumstance. 

The justice-seeking ghost is a very common trope in ghost stories, but de Leon uses it as an allegory of the greater crimes that go unpunished across the nation against women, minorities, and the poor. 

It hints at those larger themes of injustice, and de Leon shows how people seek comfort in their lives through religion: the penitence in churches, the recreation of the torturous whippings that Christ faced while in the journey of crucifixion, the prayers and chants honed through decades of practice. It’s fascinating to watch de Leon implicitly connect these to the main ghost story at hand: akin to how these religious acts are supposed to give the marginalized hope for forgiveness and justice, Rosa, Teresa’s sister and the ghost haunting the story, is using supernatural means to find equal footing and justice after it was denied to her while she was alive. 

There’s also interest in how de Leon uses the parallelisms of religion as a comforting act of penitence and the haunting as an act of a ghost asking to be comforted in the afterlife. The writing and the direction certainly help bring these to the surface, and it makes for a richer viewing experience as de Leon’s direction guides you wordlessly through these acts of penitence, increasing in intensity until the final climactic reveal occurs. 

The film’s restoration for the big screen is very vibrant, and the viewer gets a sense of what awed critics and audiences at the time of its initial release: de Leon uses these great widescreen shots to build tension in the story, and it has a sense of scale in its proceedings that is largely missing from future ghost story films made in the Philippines. 

The way de Leon introduces the church in the province feels very inspired, a way of defamiliarizing what a church is; and the early shots inside of Jun’s family home give a sense of geography that allows the audience to know where everything is, setting up the actual horror scenes later on that rely on the audience’s familiarity with where these rooms are in relation to each other. Itim is a confident and assured debut for de Leon, showing his eye for images and his intentional approach to tackling social commentary that will show up in many of his future films. It is also a great film in its own right, with potent imagery and storytelling that stays compelling throughout the film. There’s a timeless appeal with Itim that doesn’t necessarily exist with other horror films, grounded in a societal condition that exists even today, and it’s something that modern audiences can connect with easily.

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