“Sta. Niña” is a family melodrama with a religious backdrop that could easily go wrong in the hands of lesser filmmakers.
The movie’s synopsis in the Cinemalaya official program guide goes like this: “When Paulino Mungcal and his co-worker in a lahar-filled quarry unexpectedly dig up the remains of his 2-year old daughter Marikit, they discover that she showed no signs of decay. Could this be a miracle, and could she, despite death, cure the sick?”
Another primer describes the movie this way: “Coco Martin returns to his indie roots as he plays the role of a father who wants his dead but surprisingly well-preserved daughter to be recognized by the Catholic Church as a saint because she is believed to be miraculous.”
What they don’t prepare you for is the story of how these events open up deep old personal wounds in Paulino and his family involving a big scandal, one of teleserye proportions.
But don’t let that scare you off. “Sta. Niña”, I am happy to report, never degenerates into turgid soap opera fare.
For sure the movie succumbs to genre conventions — tearful conversations, a flashback, and a searing confrontation scene, and a few characters this shade of stereotype, to be specific.
But director Emmanuel Palo, a teleserye veteran who co-wrote the film’s script with playwright Liza Magtoto, treats all of them with understated confidence, intelligent feeling, and glorious restraint.
He employs the same approach to the film’s religious and moral themes about faith, sin, miracles, and holiness. None of the questions that the film raises is new, having been explored in countless movies, notably the classic “Himala”.
But the virtue of “Sta. Niña” lies in how it avoids being a potboiler of hot-button issues and how it keeps everything on a human scale. This is, after all and above all, a film about personal regret and redemption.
Sensitively realized and perfectly pitched, “Sta. Niña” looks, sounds, and feels thoroughly authentic with nary a false note.
Coco Martin brings his rueful soulfulness to Paulino. It’s a finely nuanced performance that fully and beautifully captures the wounded heart, scrappy wit, and determined spirit of a crusading father, conflicted ex-husband, and dutiful grandson.
As Paulino’s estranged wife and Nina’s sorrowful mother, Alessandra de Rossi invests her role with a quiet strength and chilly world-weariness that serve the character well.
The rest of the cast deliver uniformly excellent performances, most notably the scene-stealing Anita Linda who is simply divine with her perfectly pitched turn as Paulino’s invectives-spewing Alzheimer-stricken grandma.
“Sta. Nina” may not be the grand dame of all religious-themed Filipino movies. “Himala” still retains that singular honor. But this lovely and loving film is nothing less than a minor miracle of a movie.