“Himala”: A Film About the Dangers of Blind Faith

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Ishmael Bernal has directed many films that are now considered Filipino cinema classics. One of his more popular movies is “Himala”, penned by Ricky Lee and starring Nora Aunor in a career-defining role. Though the movie was released in 1982, many of the themes and ideas presented in this movie are still relevant today. The notion that we should never question or critique things and that we should just have faith is something that I often hear from many people–relatives, acquaintances, church leaders, etc. “Himala” warns that this sort of mentality can potentially be very destructive.

The story follows Elsa (Nora Aunor), a woman who claims that the Blessed Virgin Mary had appeared to her while she was by the place where her mother had found her as an infant. At first, many people were skeptical but then she began faith-healing. Soon after this, Elsa was able to amass a loyal band of followers, who dubbed themselves her “Seven Apostles”.

Word soon spread about Elsa’s faith-healing and their once-desolate town of Cupang quickly transformed into a popular tourist attraction. Many pilgrims, curious travelers and even filmmakers traveled to Cupang to witness Elsa’s “miracles”.

Things quickly backfired on Elsa when she couldn’t save two children who had cholera, and when she was unable to help her friend when they were both raped. People lost their faith in her and blamed her for all the horrible things that happened in the town. But then the rain came and they once again believed that Elsa had saved their town from a drought.

I wasn’t around when “Himala” was first released (mostly because I wasn’t born yet at the time) so I wonder how Filipino audiences first reacted to this movie. I know that nowadays it is considered one of the best Filipino movies of all time but I wonder if it was as warmly-received back then as it is now, given that its main themes were about the dangers of blind faith.

Seeing as how we live in a predominantly Catholic nation and that Filipinos take pride in being religious and spiritual people, I can imagine this movie ruffling a lot of feathers with its somewhat cynical view of faith-healing. Take heed, though, dear reader, “Himala” is not anti-religion or anti-faith (since even our main protagonist acknowledged that her actions have brought people together and have even brought some closer to God) but it does warn us about faith taken to the extreme.

At the end of the movie, (spoiler alert; even though this part of the movie has been endlessly quoted by countless other Filipino films and actors) Elsa confesses to the people that the miracles weren’t real (“Walang himala! Ang himala ay nasa puso ng tao, nasa puso nating lahat!“). She then gets shot but one of her most loyal followers tells the crowd that Elsa is a martyr and that they ought to finish the work she started. The crowd falls on their knees and recites the “Hail Mary” while climbing the hill.

What does it say about us that even when the facts are staring us right in the face, we turn away and continue believing our own inaccurate beliefs?  I have seen many people turn a blind eye to events going on around us while continuing to tell themselves that everything is as it should be. While there is nothing wrong with having faith, we must all also be open-minded and aware. We must use our brains alongside our hearts. Or else, much like the deluded crowd, we may end up living life in the false reality of our own making.