The topic of domestic violence is usually a tricky one. Luckily, the Filipino director Raymund Ribay Gutierrez picks the right approach: the straight one for his feature debut “Verdict”. The film has just premiered at Venice, in Orizzonti competition and its universal appeal of domestic drama combined with procedural about the faulty state of the country's bureaucracy should assure its vibrant and long festival life.
The film opens at home with Joy Santos (Max Eigenmann, quite active on the domestic film and TV scene in the recent years) and her daughter Angel (Jordhen Suan). Their evening routine is suddenly interrupted when Joy's husband and Angel's father Dante (Kristoffer King, also pretty prolific lately) comes back home violently drunk and angry about some miscommunication between him and Joy. As the argument gets more and more heated, he gets physically violent toward his spouse, even hitting their child who gets in between. After slashing him with a kitchen knife in an obvious act of self-defense, Joy, pretty beaten up, runs with Angel to the nearest police station.
There is no doubt that it is not the first time Joy takes a beating from her husband and it is also granted that it would not be the last, unless she does something about it. So she files the charges against her violent husband and puts him in jail, at least temporarily, while the two of them move to a safe house kind of establishment. The trial at the court of law ensues and, as it is usually the case, it is less about justice or even law per se. So the lawyer's games of rhetorics and establishing the narrative in which the evidence and the testimonies by witnesses would or would not stand, while everything is more or less left to the judge's frivolous interpretation.
No doubt that domestic violence is still a big thing even in the most developed parts of the world and that countries with stronger patriarchal culture face even more problems in that regard. It is usually not the matter of positive legislative that condemns any form of discrimination and abuse of (physical and let us say economic and political) power, but the one of patterns deeply rooted in culture. Most of the cases are not being reported for various reasons and even those that are processed by the police and the court are being treated as some kind of minor offenses.
Gutierrez knows it and is not shy to show it openly using the stylistic choices along the lines of cinema verite and its echoes all over the world, usually relying on long, hand-held takes done by the cinematographer Joshua Reyles and somewhat rough editing by Diego Marx Dobles. The emotional effect is maximized even before the film's greatest trick – the smooth transition from the domestic violence drama to procedural and court thriller of sorts that also corresponds with the transition from an individual to a more universal level. The ending with a twist is also a treat that deserves to remain spoiler-free.
It is evident that Gutierrez has a good understanding with its cast and crew and that should not be an issue since he has already worked with all of them on a similarly themed short film titled “Judgement” that treats only the courtroom part of the story. In the process of converting a short to a feature film, the actors had the most work, since their characters were developed over the course of it. Both Eigenmann and King are quite compelling in their performances, without slip-ups to the territory of over-expressive melodramatic acting, although her control is visibly better than his. Luckily, they both have to interact with a number of supporting characters played by competently relatively unknown actors who serve as the perfect buffer between the two of them.
All things considered, “Verdict” is more than a film with a good cause. Its importance is multi-layered and being simply a very good film also contributes to it.