Ever since I watched Erik Matti’s Seklusyon in theaters two years ago, I’ve been itching to write about it in some way or other. I tried writing a review for it but since movies aren’t my specialty (though sometimes I can’t help but throw in my two cents on a film) I didn’t feel too confident in the output. I’ve been tossing around this piece about the theme of forgiveness in the movie but I didn’t feel too equipped to write about that either.
Normally, I’d just drop the matter altogether if I simply can’t motivate myself to write but… I wanted to write about this one particular scene that I personally believe stole the show, the one scene that transcended the movie from being a good film to a great one, the one scene that I still think about because of its masterful execution of establishing the setting and tone, subtle characterization, and emotional impact. For me at least.
So I figured, screw the review and analysis. I’m going to write about that one scene.
I’ve seen the movie twice now and athough there are numerous vivid scenes throughout the film, this one in particular really struck me for some reason. If you’ve seen the movie, you might think that I’m talking about one of the more intense scenes, maybe even the climax (or the continuous disorienting shot in the forest which was *chef’s kiss*) but it’s none of that. In fact, truth be told, it’s actually quite a random scene, a simple one that lasted less than half a minute and involved only two characters, one of which wasn’t even a main character.
If you haven’t seen the movie… I implore you to watch it. Do yourself a huge favor and watch this incredible horror movie before continuing. But if you would rather keep reading – first of all, why? and how did you get here? – despite knowing almost nothing about the movie, here’s a little bit context: half a century ago, for deacons (aspiring priests) to earn their priesthood, they are sent to a secluded convent deep in the forest for the last seven days of their training. They are sent to this seclusion because it was believed that deacons are the most vulnerable to the influence of the devil in their last days before priesthood. Seklusyon is a story about a group of deacons whose seclusion is interrupted upon the arrival of a mysterious little girl believed to be the next Jesus Christ.
My favorite scene happens early on in the film, just after the opening credits. Our main character Miguel, a stoic young deacon sentenced to seclusion the scene before, is walking up a grassy path. It’s the middle of the day and quiet, really peaceful. That is until the Miguel hears someone shouting. We, the audience, can’t make out the words at first, but there is something tired and almost deranged in the tone of the person shouting. As Miguel walks further, we see the old man coming into frame and hear his yelling clearly. ‘God has abandoned us,’ screams the old man, staring into space, his gait heavy though his tattered clothes just hang off of him. ‘The Japanese are coming. We’re all going to hell.’
As the old man walks closer to Miguel, we can make out that he’s wearing a threadbare soldier’s uniform and gripping a plank of wood as though it was a regulation weapon. From the way the man staggers down the path and the hoarseness of his voice, we can tell that he’s been doing this for a while now. Earlier it was established that the setting is deep in the countryside, far from civilization. However, the old man seems to have been screaming for miles, warning everyone of a war that’s already ended. Despite the lack of audience, the resigned desperation in his voice tells you that he really thinks that all hope is lost. No one is around to hear him, likely for miles ahead, yet the old man heralds away anyway.
Miguel pauses for a second or so, confused. Then as realization dawns on him, he gets uncomfortable. He says nothing and doesn’t move until the old man has passed him. Miguel looks over the old man for a few seconds before continuing on his way. As Miguel exits the frame, we see him glance over his shoulder, the old man’s ramblings still faintly audible.
Then he wordlessly moves on without a second thought.
This encounter lasts less than 20 seconds. The old man never makes an appearance again. Miguel doesn’t mention the encounter to anyone nor does he even think about it ever again. It was such a small, narratively inconsequential scene however I loved it because of how much it did in such a short period of time and with so little action. I mean, it really is almost an unnecessary scene, one designed to make the audience uneasy. Take it out of the movie and the story itself isn’t affected. But this scene accomplished more in 20 seconds than the twenty minute expositive mess/opening act of Suicide Squad. (cheap shot, I know, but c’mon… that movie was bad.)
Am I being overly fastidious and possibly talking nonsense? Probably. But this is my blog so I’m going to break down that 20 second scene anyway:
Miguel has traveled deep into the countryside to get to the convent where he will take his seclusion. The opening sequence is a montage of breathtaking vistas, to emphasize how far Miguel is going and how secluded it is. The movie officially starts after Miguel gets off the pick-up truck he hitched a ride on. He’s truly alone now… until the old man comes in. Miguel is shocked to see the old man but not too alarmed. Even when the old man leans in close, Miguel isn’t scared. This implies that this isn’t a very uncommon sight, an obviously mentally disturbed old man heralding humanity’s doom. Even now, in real life, it still isn’t. The Philippines isn’t the best place for mental health and soldiers suffering from PTSD after WW2 most likely had nowhere and no one to turn to.
It’s not unreasonable to think that, yeah, Miguel did’t make any move to help the old man because he was either too shaken or simply unsure on how to help. I mean, normal people wouldn’t know how to act in that situation so they’d just pretend not to notice and mind their own business. But here’s the thing: Miguel is a deacon, a young man training to become a servant of God. And if you’re planning on devoting your life to service, wouldn’t it kind of leave a nasty burn on your conscience leaving an obviously mentally disturbed man all alone in the woods? That man needed help and Miguel knew that the right thing to do – the moral thing to do – would have been to stop the old man, get to know him, maybe find out where he came from, and bring him back to his family. Yet Miguel ignored the old soldier, didn’t even seem to consider helping him.
Because no one was around. I suspect that Miguel would have at least shown some signs of worry about the old man had there been witnesses. The fact that he did nothing hints at Miguel’s true nature: passivity disguised in piety.
And here’s the thing about our boy Miguel. His character has this holier-than-thou aura about him that’s best illustrated a little later in the movie when he and the other deacons are eating dinner. While the others take one full piece bread, Miguel makes a show of tearing his share in half and only eating that measly piece. He even goes on to say that that halved bread is more than enough to sustain him (ok… sounds fake but ok…). Total BS but it does make the other deacons feel guilty which I wonder if that was the whole point. Basically, there’s something off about Miguel even from the beginning.
Also, without going into full spoiler territory, I’m just going to say that the scene with the old soldier also kind of foreshadows Miguel’s past. When he could have and should have done something at the cost of discomfort, Miguel would rather choose to run away and ignore it.
Besides Miguel’s character, this scene also does a great job at establishing the time period of the film. Take note that we aren’t explicitly told the year at the beginning of the movie, though we are aware that it’s set in the not too distant past (the sepia-like filter gives us that much at least). However, by showing us that unstable soldier shouting about the Japanese coming to attack, we can tell that the time frame of this movie is a little after WW2, when our country was still recovering from the war. The old man was likely a soldier who had seen things and done things during the war that haunted him to the point of losing his grip on reality. It’s not difficult to imagine the horrors he must have experience that scarred him so much that he couldn’t escape them even after the battle was long over. The movie tells us none of this, only subtly hints at it. And subtlety is an art form in itself.
Lastly, the scene with the old man sets the tone of the movie rather perfectly: dark, eerie, and uncomfortable once you really thought about it.
For such a short and simple scene, it accomplished so much without going overboard, that’s why I loved it so much. I might just be going on and on about nothing here but I really do mean it when I say that that random as heck scene has stuck with me after all this time. There are a lot of things Seklusyon deserves praise for. Lighting, cinematography, characters, screenplay – there’s a reason why it dominated the Metro Manila Film Festival (and on the one year where they actually made sure to include quality movies instead of shameless commercial cash-grabs).
Seklusyon is a great movie, is what I’m saying. Took me 1,700 words to get to it but that’s the crux of this essay. That scene with the old man is, in my own humble opinion, proof of this movie’s greatness.