But films aren’t only meant to provide entertainment; they can teach as well. Through the cinematic eye, we gain empathy for lives beyond our understanding. In Ron Morales’ Graceland, a little girl is shot and killed on camera, a tragedy that ends as quickly as it occurs. The act is shocking, but never feels exploitative; in that moment, the film is at its most empathetic, focusing on the horrified expression on the face of Marlon Villar (Arnold Reyes), the main protagonist of this sad and twisted tale. Marlon is a chauffeur for his employer Manuel Chango (Menggie Cobarrubias), a Filipino Congressman in the midst of a sex scandal involving underaged girls. In charge of taking Chango’s daughter Sophie to school, along with his own daughter, Marlon is attacked by kidnappers who kill Sophie and mistakenly kidnap Marlon’s daughter.
The death of Sophie removes any guarantee that Marlon’s daughter will make it out alive as we, along with Marlon, free-fall into the gritty underbelly of Graceland’s world. The kidnappers force Marlon to go ahead with the ransom as planned, making Chango and his family believe that Sophie is still alive in order to collect the ransom money; all while staying one step ahead of the police who suspect Marlon of being involved with the kidnappers. The world depicted in Graceland is a brutal one, as many of its characters are shown to be either corrupt or capable of unspeakable violence. Marlon, who acts as the film’s sole moral point, is pushed around (often quite literally) by these forces. When he is rendered helpless as he’s forced to continue lying to Chango and the police in order to ensure his own daughter’s safety, it’s a scenario that is as unsettling to watch as it is engaging. But it’s Arnold Reyes’s performance that makes the movie more than simply moments of ugliness piled on each other. Reyes’ Marlon is an underdog, just trying to make do in a hard life filled with poverty and violence. And while it does feel as if Marlon’s character was primed to be as sympathetic as possible–Marlon also has to take care of a sick wife who is in need of an organ transplant–Reyes performance is fantastic, an empathetic light through Graceland’s darkness.
Still, Graceland might not sit will with certain audiences. The film is unflinching in its depiction of sex trafficking in the Philippines, with young girls being sold to men. (The film’s credits make it a point to mention that every actor involved in the film’s sexually expletive moments was 18 at the time of shooting.) Even worse, many characters themselves are complicit in these criminal activities. And yet, Graceland is a startlingly beautiful film in its willingness to delve into the humanity of its cast, revealing people who are willing and able to love–and who often show this through the severity of their actions.
Graceland is harsh, unwilling to soften the unfortunate realties of the world. But underneath all the dirt and grime lies a beauty that only cinema can uncover, making Graceland a fascinating film to watch.