Wednesday 7 April 2021

And justice for all...?: "Verdict"

Every few years, a Filipino filmmaker emerges whom experts tip will finally fill the sizeable shoes of the late Lino Brocka, director of 1975's landmark Manila in the Claws of Light. The prolific but wayward Brillante Mendoza, briefly a favourite on the festival circuit, looks to have burned out in recent years; a new contender may be Raymund Ribay Gutierrez, a Mendoza protégé whose debut Verdict, a procedural account of a domestic abuse case, took home a Special Jury Prize from the Orizzonti section of the 2019 Venice film festival, before being picked as the Philippines' official entrant in this year's foreign-language Oscar race. Content warnings may be necessary for a film that opens with a flurry of punches, as methhead crank Dante (Kristoffer King) sets about wife Joy (Max Eigenmann), she defends herself, and the couple's young daughter Angel (Jordhen Suan) gets caught in the crossfire. I wish I could say everything calms down once we follow the family into the system: first to hospital, where wounds are sutured and Joy's father sets about his son-in-law; to police headquarters, where fingerprints and mugshots are taken, and it's established that Dante has a case to answer; and finally to a cramped courtroom, where the precise facts of this matter are tossed in the air to see where they might land. But nothing about Gutierrez's film is calming exactly. The traditional method of the procedural has been to extend a hand to the viewer, walk us through a varyingly typical case history, and reassure us there is a system in place that ensures justice will out - to show us something to help us sleep at night, in other words. Why, then, is Verdict so jolting? And why does it send us away, when the final ruling comes in, with several insomniacs' worth of questions?

Partly, I think, because it never lets us settle. Even after Gutierrez has shown us the crime under consideration, at bruisingly close range - so that we know which verdict we'd learn towards, if we were asked to play judge and jury - there's no guarantee of how this judicial system is going to interpret events, and we might start to wobble, too. This filmmaker's manipulation of screen time is such that, for a long while, the action appears more or less continuous: he sets his characters on a conveyor belt that doesn't stop, and never allows them to sleep, wash up, think or heal. The remorseless pace of the opening hour ensures that we, too, feel their fatigue and disorientation; this isn't a procedural drawn up along crisp, clear Law & Order lines so much as a (very Mendoza-like) ordeal for all concerned. The relentlessness is compounded by Joshua Reyles' handheld cinematography, which does just about everything physically possible to pitch the viewer into the middle of these situations. Gutierrez cuts him loose around what appear to be actual locations within the Filipino justice system, and there are points where the camera seems to bob and weave around real-world cases that might have attracted a documentary crew. One key reason the film jolts us so: it's a movie with domestic abuse at its centre that hasn't been shot with kid gloves. Yet its moral footing remains secure. Presumably someone associated with this production had to get sign-offs from the various cops, lawyers and prosecutors whose paths it crosses, yet shooting on something close to the fly allows Gutierrez to spot areas - and in places, vast territories - where the system might still be fine-tuned, improved.

It hardly seems fair on the horribly battered Joy that she should have to personally chase up friends and neighbours to serve as character witnesses, for starters; Gutierrez lingers on the notes and coins Dante's mother lays out for her son's bail, knowing that, ultimately, is what's making this system go round; and it's a strange yet dramatically effective quirk that husband and wife are processed in parallel to one another for long stretches. This couple spend more time together after the attack than they seem to have done before it; there appears very little in the way of insulation between them. (Which would explain the guarded look the excellent Eigenmann sustains throughout.) To a lack of time, then, Gutierrez adds the charge of a critical lack of space. It becomes especially prickly when Angel is summoned to testify against the father she adores, who just happens to be sitting within touching (or clutching) distance, but just from a practical perspective: if I was the lawyer working this case, I'd want my own desk from which to argue my position - and looking on from 2021, I'd certainly want more distance between myself and the hacking TB outpatient who blithely wanders in to observe one session. For all his pell-mell photography, Gutierrez keeps squeezing in these vivid local details: a major day of testimony coincides with a religious festival, meaning that everyone takes the stand with an ashy cross on their forehead. There may well be a future in procedurals with such regional variations, and Verdict would make an instructive double-bill with Chaitanya Tamhane's 2014 film Court, where the law was distractible to a fault. Here, though, it's so ad hoc as to be almost entirely arbitrary, a kick-bollock-scramble that at times appears scarcely more reasoned - or fair - than the attack that sets these wheels in motion. Call that justice?

Verdict is now available to rent via Prime Video.

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