I love it when horror films utilize the genre’s symbolic qualities to touch upon deeper, darker fears that exist currently in society; when a monster or evil spirit is not just that, but a representation of society’s ills. Erik Matti’s ‘Kuwaresma’ does exactly that. The story is about a college student in Lucena, Luis (Kent Gonzales), who must return to his home in Baguio after a family tragedy. As Luis arrives home, he is greeted warmly by his mother, Rebecca (a spectacular Sharon Cuneta), and coldly by his father, Arturo (John Arcilla in a powerhouse performance). On the days leading to the burial of his sister Manuela (Pam Gonzales), Luis is haunted and the dark family secrets begin to rise to the surface.
The horror and suspense are merely story tools to tackle much deeper issues involving family.
The first two acts of the film are wonderfully done — quiet and filled with dread — as Luis, who hasn’t been home in a long time, must find it in his heart to stand up against his strict and almost tyrannical father. Here, Matti is masterfully creating meaning from little gestures, a stray look, and from the heavy silences that has befallen this house.
There is a fantastic scene between the three — Cuneta, Arcilla, and Gonzales — as they are about to eat dinner. The scene is filled with powerful restraint and so much is being conveyed by just watching their movements. It’s riveting.
There are a lot of moments, though, when Matti and screenwriter Katski Flores engages us in long scary sequences that draws out the scene and doesn’t move the story forward. There is a generous amount of sequences like this where the payoff of the scene ends with a morsel of information that doesn’t quite illuminate what is going on. The film takes baby steps at revealing its secrets, and so there are times when the film feels like it's dragging.
Fortunately, there are fantastic performances by Sharon Cuneta and John Arcilla. These two are explosive in every scene that they inhabit, creating the necessary dramatic weight that keeps this film from being just a well-made frightfest. On a personal note, I feel that Sharon Cuneta was under-utilized as the film truly follows Kent Gonzales’ Luis, and Cuneta’s Rebecca is hardly there until the final act. Lucky for her, every scene is charged and memorable that she never disappears from your mind even though she is not present in many of the first and second acts.
While the first two acts of the movie is excellent, the finale is when the film struggles under the weight of all its story threads. This house has many secrets and each of these are given a weighty explanation in the end. There are moments when you feel like the movie has already ended but it continues because there are way more stories to conclude. The third act is so heavy with the closure of plot points that it loses all its gained momentum. Had some of these story threads closed earlier to build momentum for its finale, it might have been able to give breathing space for the film to truly explode with a definite finality.
Instead, the final act becomes a narrative dumping ground for the many story threads that have been opened to find closure, and it makes the ending clunky and full of exposition. Thankfully, Cuneta, Arcilla, and Guila Alvarez, who plays a medium with a connection to the house, carries these scenes, and Kent Gonzales rises up to the challenge to match his co-stars line for line.
But as horror films go, ‘Kuwaresma’ is a triumph in mood, set up, and genuine scares. It’s a fantastic showcase for Sharon Cuneta and John Arcilla of their wonderfully layered performances. Horror seems to be making a comeback in 2019 and this is a step in the right direction.