By Zsarlene B. Chua, Senior Reporter
Suarez: The Healing Priest
Directed by Joven Tan
THERE was always a sort of mysticality and otherworldliness about Father Fernando Suarez — famously known as a “healing priest” because of the many people who have testified that, yes, they were healed after taking part in the priest’s healing masses that drew thousands — and that, I think, was what Joven Tan tried to capture in his Metro Manila Film Festival entry, Suarez: The Healing Priest.
Biopics as a genre are difficult — especially for a person celebrated for having healed people — as the reconciliation between man and the myth is a delicate balancing act, an act that Mr. Tan, as a director, attempted to do but in this writer’s opinion, failed at.
The film follows the story of Fernando Suarez, told in non-linear narrative, a boy from Batangas who promised to be the family’s breadwinner after becoming an engineer at another town. But his heart called him to another profession, being a priest.
While Suarez tried to demystify the healing priest, it is apparent that Mr. Tan is a fan of Fr. Suarez — the controversies of his past are chalked up as plots to destroy him as bishops grow apprehensive and jealous of his fame, and his tribulations (including a scene where he is sent to “rehabilitation” because of allegations against him) are framed to show that God, indeed, favors Fr. Suarez and that the bishops were wrong. (Fr. Suarez was accused of molestation of two young boys and misappropriating funds, among other allegations.)
During Fr. Suarez’s “rehabilitation,” a sort of forced period of reflection, a deluge happens right outside the window, with one bishop (on a call with another) saying something along the lines of: “God knows about our ‘plans’ for him and He doesn’t like it.”
Fr. Suarez is also shown as having supernatural powers beyond healing, apparently being able to summon water to flood a beerhouse after his co-workers try and tempt him with a girl, and, in another scene, helping a seminarian escape temptation by calling him and telling him to get out of the situation.
Suarez is a disjointed and unfocused film that clearly was created to solidify Fr. Suarez’s legacy (he died in February of this year). Some parts of the film look inspired by Mike de Leon’s Bayaning Third World (2000), with Alice Dixson presented as a talk show host trying to look behind the legend of Fr. Suarez and then being converted into a believer once she actually meets him.
Even the casting of John Arcilla, an actor best known for playing the feisty General Antonio Luna in Jerrold Tarog’s Heneral Luna (2015), was calculated to make Fr. Suarez larger-than-life, although Mr. Arcilla delivered only one emotion, a forced holiness, which inspired in this writer flashbacks to Francis O. Villacorta’s Pedro Calungsod: Batang Martir (2013), a biopic about the Cebuano saint.
My main gripe about how holy people are portrayed in these two films is that they are presented as otherworldly, removed from human failings and emotions because they were chosen by the heavens. It’s not relatable, and I think it was never meant to be.
Still, I understand the fervor around Fr. Suarez — many people want to be healed and when science fails, faith may be their only chance. And now that Fr. Suarez has passed, his final prayer at the end of the film may be the last his believers will ever have of his healing powers.
I would like to point out that a line in the film, said less than three minutes in, made a very good point about healing and faith. It went something like: “The problem with faith healing is when it fails, the blame falls on us because we didn’t have enough faith.”
Because of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, the Metro Manila Film Festival is being held online, with the entries screening via Upstream.ph. The festival is ongoing until Jan. 7.