Kuwaresma has style and powerhouse performances to spare but its plot crumbles under the weight of its ambitions.
Erik Matti’s latest avenue for arthouse horror, Kuwaresma, is pure aesthetic all the way through. It has style to spare – from its grim production values to its elegant camerawork, the unsettling atmosphere is already palpable within its first minutes. From a visual standpoint, the horror components may be familiar, but it’s sophisticated execution makes it worthy of a double-take. In here, the decrepit ancestral house serves as a symbolical backdrop of the many skeletons that the film aims to uncover. Individually, the associated subtexts make their impacts. Collectively, however, it’s a struggle as the film bites more so than it can chew.
Set in a distant looking 80’s Baguio, a young college lad Luis Fajardo (Kent Gonzales) returns to his patriarchal driven household upon the untimely death of his sister Manuela (Pam Gonzales). Both his parents Arturo (John Arcilla) and Rebecca (Sharon Cuneta) simply say that she’s inflicted with a terminal disease which forced her to commit suicide out of despair. But as far as horror mysteries go, we know that it’s not true. The mournings soon turn into hauntings and Luis is eventually confronted with dark family secrets and malevolent forces that inhabit within the walls of their house. Unlike Matti’s Seklusyon, there’s not much religious superstition fanfare going on here. The film’s title (Lent in english) has a slim relevance to the plot, save for the fact that Manuela is buried during the lenten week, a time when it said that the devil has the greatest potential to tempt mankind.
For one, Kuwaresma could have benefited from a more active protagonist. It’s a tough job to stand toe to toe among two veteran actors and newcomer Gonzales does fine in displaying the confusion and resentment required for the role. His character, however, only kicks into his senses by the second act. In the meantime, the film takes its baby steps in unraveling the secret by favoring on long drawn spooky sequences which contribute little to propel the plot. “What’s outside is inside. Never go inside,” Guila Alvarez’s psychic character offers Luis a vague warning. She seems like a rational person but why can’t she be more direct on what she’s trying to say? For theatrical purpose I guess.
With little crumbs of information to lead the way, Kuwaresma can feel dragging. The intense musical scoring and sound design, infused with eccentric foreign chants tend to annoy at some point. Thankfully, the amount of jumpscare is justified to show overall restraint. In one remarkable dinner scene, the horror is merely mirrored through camera pans and facial expressions. Standard scares aside, there’s a lot of themes to be mined from the dysfunctional family in question. The film takes jabs at different forms of delusions of grandeur – how childhood traumas can suppress one’s memory and alter one’s perception. It also works as a commentary on the dangers of apathy in a time of crisis, on abusive relationships, on misogyny and toxic masculinity (albeit the supernatural element involved waters down this effect). As a portrait of family split by a tragedy, there’s an unbearable tension that haunts you for a moment.
Matti and co-screenwriter Katski Flores’s show hints of thoughtfulness in their screenplay best exemplified by the oblivious hints peppered along the way, but not enough focus is given to where it mattered the most. As Kuwaresma dives into a crazy third act, the narrative gets dumped with hammy expositions and big reveals – one of which feels unnecessary and unconvincing from a logical standpoint. Counting in the film’s deliberate willingness to leave some questions unanswered, the conclusion leaves you more bewildered than frightened.
If anything else, Kuwaresma remains to be a fantastic display of powerhouse performances. Cuneta blends into the background as a timid mother who gets to take control by the third act. At times she feels overqualified as her presence tends to tip the genre to a melodramatic territory, but nevertheless, her acting prowess is what will attract viewers in the first place. The real showstopper here is the great John Arcilla who terrifyingly portrays his character’s unhinged descent into madness, with so much grit and intimidation that he literally starts to drool in one scene. It’s a fiery performance that rivals Jack Nicholson’s Jack Torrance in The Shining.
As Matti’s playground for his clever practical effects and filmmaking skills, Kuwaresma is a fascinating piece of art. For a haunting family tale, however, it tries to be many things at once that the narrative crumbles under the weight of ambitions. It’s not entirely a bad film especially if you’re into edgy and sensational work. Just don’t expect for a logical conclusion.
3 out of 5 stars