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Himala: The Temptress, the Virgin, and the Elusive Miracle

By Sison, Antonio D. | Cross Currents, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Himala: The Temptress, the Virgin, and the Elusive Miracle


Sison, Antonio D., Cross Currents


The Filipino film Himala (Miracle, dir. Ishmael Bernal, 1982) is set in a marginal barrio awash in folk religiosity and superstition. Desert-like, poor, and believed to be cursed, the veritable nowhereland craves for a miracle. The miracle incarnate is Elsa, a deceptively simple young woman who claims to have seen the Virgin Mary and who becomes the self-styled star of a miraculous healing crusade. At the other end of the village, Nimia, a prostitute and erstwhile friend of Elsa, spins her own magic as she opens a raunchy club. The turn of events are steered by the tensions between faith and faithlessness as the community navigates through some rude awakenings.

If a film's pedigree determined its quality, Himala would certainly make a strong case. For one, the film was lensed by the late Ishmael Bernal, one of the most esteemed filmmakers of the Philippines. Like his contemporary Lino Brocka, Bernal had mastered the art of re-creating Third World ethos and had a clear-eyed view of the lives of society's weakest links. The unusual multi-layered story was penned by Ricardo Lee, the most prolific and easily the most awarded screenwriter of the Philippines. Then there is, of course, the dramatic genius of Nora Aunor, the country's premiere actress, who is said to have delivered her career best in the film. Masterfully calibrating emotion through the poetics of the gaze, Aunor essays the role of Elsa with amazing depth and authenticity.

To be sure, Himala could speak for itself as a film even without mentioning its list of notables. The ensemble of complex and intriguing characters, the effectively austere semi-documentary camera work, the richly textured mise en scene, and the haunting musical score, make Himala, in more ways than one, a miracle of Third World cinema. (1)

Can the same be said, however, of the film's representation of women?

Are there miracles for women's flourishing in Himala?

I issue the caveat that my analysis is not meant to question the acclaim deservingly accorded to Himala. My intention is to re-visit the film's representation of women and examine how this squares with the optic of feminist theological currents. That said, a second caveat is due--I do not wish to claim that I speak in behalf of women's experiences. I simply graft onto the hermeneutic impulse the film itself triggers based on its own representational trajectory. The filmic text itself lays down the bridge for a possible critical discussion with feminist theology.

I am necessarily indebted to feminist resources, interweaving various feminist theological frameworks and inclusive biblical hermeneutics in order to allow for a richer discursive engagement with the given filmic text. My use of eclectic resources in feminist theological studies, however, converge in one project--the search for authentic humanity for women. Rosemary Radford Ruether, herself a feminist theologian who has cut across feminist paradigms, (2) defines this agenda in a critical principle:

       The critical principle of feminist theology is the promotion of
       the full humanity of women. Whatever denies, diminishes, or
       distorts the full humanity of women is, therefore, appraised as
       not redemptive. Theologically speaking, whatever diminishes or
       denies the full humanity of women must be presumed not to reflect
       the divine or an authentic relation to the divine, or to reflect
       the authentic nature of things, or to be the message or work of
       an authentic redeemer or a community of redemption. The negative
       principle also implies the positive principle: what does promote
       the full humanity of women is of the Holy, it is the true nature
       of things, the authentic message of redemption and the mission of
       the redemptive community. (3)

The essay is structured in two parts. I first present a critique of androcentrism and patriarchy as informed by the works of feminist theologians--Ruether's critique of androcentrism, Phyllis Trible's rhetorical criticism of Genesis 3, Kathleen Coyle's Mariology, as well as additional resources from biblical studies.

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