‘Ang Pagsanib kay Leah dela Cruz’—all mood but not enough focus

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Sarah Lahbati and Julian Trono

We were bowled over by Katski Flores’ 2007 Cinemalaya production, “Still Life”—as much for the actress-director’s storytelling savvy as for the pertinence of her film’s tantalizing existentialist themes. So, you can’t blame us for thinking that Flores’ psychological thriller, “Ang Pagsanib kay Leah dela Cruz,” should have come much sooner.

“Pagsanib” is far from atrocious but, blame our high expectations for its director’s underserved filmmaking acumen and underutilized skills, it most certainly underwhelms.

The movie is as much the story of Leah (Shy Carlos), a troubled high school student who jumps off a balcony, as it is about Ruth (Sarah Lahbati), the similarly problematic police officer investigating the disturbing—and supernatural—circumstances surrounding her dicey situation.

Shy Carlos

What have Leah’s nanny, Rosario, and her school’s guidance counselor, Sister Eloisa, got to do with her strange behavior? How are they connected to the cult that sees copulation and sexual perversion as forms of prayer? Even more pertinently, is Leah the only one who needs urgent exorcising?

The film gets off to a compelling start, but quickly overstays its welcome because it spends too much time trying to scare viewers with a now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t Cimmerian-like creature that isn’t all that scary.

Worse, the foreboding figure inexplicably runs away when Ruth starts to give chase. How “sinister” can you get?

Yes, we know that Ruth, who mutilates herself every time she’s haunted by unexpiated guilt, is merely trying to face her own “demons,” real or imagined.

At the same time, it’s like witnessing a fascinating scenario involving a man and a less-than-affable canine—but, this time, it’s the man who’s doing the biting!

“Pagsanib” is as provocatively limned as its underrated predecessor, but it fails to sustain viewers’ interest and the initial good impression it makes.

Another “consolidating” element that the production lacks is judiciousness—it fields too many confounding twists, turns and convoluted revelations that gravely undermine the strength and beauty of its valid psychological musings.

It’s all doom-and-gloom with hardly any moment to spare for angst-leavening levity—as many flicks in this specialized genre wisely utilize to enhance their viewability.

It’s all mood, and not enough focus. The minute it loses its focus, however, so do viewers’ interest and empathy for every character in the production who conceals a dark secret—and, in this film’s case, that’s everybody, not just Leah and Ruth. Every person has a dark side and a bleak tale to tell.

The movie eventually sags under the weight of its overstuffed narrative strands, especially when it allows its long list of disclosures to considerably slow down its storytelling flow.

Result: A slow and meandering middle section that makes the film’s pace almost come to a grinding halt.

Lahbati, who graces her scenes with her undeniable presence and movie-star allure, doesn’t do badly. She gives the role her best shot as she tries to put some gritty sense into Ruth’s subtly unhinged and less-than-lucid countenance. Unfortunately, she falls short of delivering a truly textured characterization devoid of “manufactured” or “curated” toughness.

Carlos works just as hard but fails to dig deep into the root of her character’s woes.

On the other hand, the talented Julian Trono, portraying a teenager who’s in love with Leah, succumbs to an underdeveloped role that fails to explain the appalling “quirks” of his otherwise likable character.

We were pleased to see Ethan Salvador, the breakout star of “2 Cool 2 Be 4gotten,” in a crucial cameo—but, the screen time he’s given is too short and limited for the exceptional newcomer to fully demonstrate his evolving thespic chops.

As for Sarah, the film’s finale, which trots out another question that demands a clarificatory answer, allows the lovely actress to convincingly prove she’s more than just a pretty face. But, by then, we have long lost our empathy for her character.

After all, powerful, provocative endings don’t a great film make.

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