Tatler Review: Untrue (2019)
“What we know about each other shouldn’t be based on the memories of our past,” Joachim tells Mara.
It is an assurance, a sense of security that he will accept her no matter how troubled her past is. Mara smiles back as if expressing she is willing to do the same. As the truth gradually comes out, will the two be able to hold on to their promise?
For the first time, in celebration of Philippine Cinema’s 100th year, QCinema Film Festival opened with a Filipino film — Untrue, written and directed by Sigrid Andrea Bernardo. The film is her follow-up after the blockbuster movie, Kita Kita, in 2017. A maze full of surprising twists and turns, Untrue journeys into the story of Mara Villanueva (Cristine Reyes) and Joachim Castro (Xian Lim), two Filipinos who meet by chance in the cobblestoned town of Tbilisi, Georgia.
The film opens with a beaten-up Mara at a local police station, her crimson red hair disheveled and her face swollen with bleeding wounds. She’s searching for her “lunatic” husband, Joachim. Weak and scared, she tells her story.
Mara arrived in Georgia three months ago when she meets Joachim, a vineyard investor who has been living in the country for five years. The two bump into each other one morning, which causes Joachim to drop and break one of the wine bottles he is carrying. They officially meet at his friend’s restaurant, where Mara works as a kitchen staff.
Bernardo never lets the audience feel as though Joachim and Mara are a match made in heaven. The story of how they meet in their common apartment building was carried out as if it were a scene from a crime thriller, if not an outright horror film. The eerie background music, skewed camera angles, bluish filter matched with flickering lights as Mara comes up the stairs gives off a feel that something bad is about to happen. The film abruptly cuts to Joachim standing right behind Mara, startling her. She invites him to her place for coffee and because of their similar cultural background, the two immediately feel at home in each other’s arms.
Joachim and Mara decide to tie the knot in Sighnaghi, Georgia’s “city of love”, after a whirlwind three-month courtship. At the restaurant on the night of their honeymoon, Joachim throws a fit, which worsens throughout their marriage. One night, enslaved by his intense hallucinations about “the girl in a uniform”, Joachim drags Mara by the hair across their living room, strangles her as she struggles to breathe. She convinces him to see a therapist. Then, the narrative suddenly takes a turn.
This time, Joachim is telling the same story to a therapist with his face swollen and beaten up black and blue. He describes Mara as an edgy, feisty woman with her dark lipstick completing her whole aura, absolute contrast with Mara in the first act. The film takes on the form of a major mind game as roles and lines are switched from one character to another. By this time, the audience questions whose version of the story is the truth. The third act unfolds and the truth, lies, and the dark past are uncovered with an effectively brilliant plot twist — it was all planned out.
Back in the Philippines, the young, beardless Joachim works as a guidance councillor in a school. It is later revealed that he was having an affair with a young student, Mara’s sister, which leads to unfavourable events and ultimately her death.
Lim’s portrayal of the enigmatic, heavyset, bearded Joachim through violent outbursts towards Mara was enough to establish his lunatic character in the first act. His performance is aggressively dark yet entertaining, one would have a hard time to look away. Meanwhile, Reyes portrayed Mara’s lunacy in a more restrained acting style but completely different with Mara in the first act. Rhen Escano played the important yet very daring role of schoolgirl Ana, a ghost from the past who continued to haunt the present.
The film uses Kartlis Deda, the Mother of Georgia, to elaborate on Joachim and Mara's relationship dynamics. Kartlis Deda holds a sword in one hand and a cup of wine in the other, a metaphor for the Georgian character of warmly welcoming friends and passionately fighting off enemies. Throughout the film, the unfamiliar Georgian culture — the Kartlis Deda statue, the Kartuli folk dance, the all-male singing quintet — undoubtedly add a significant dramatic heft the film.
The foreboding musical score, a profound play with cinematography, colour filters that set the mood, and of course, plot twists that are consistent in the film paint Untrue as a psychological thriller, and not a love story.
Despite the truth being revealed, the film still raises several questions — Who was right? Who was wrong? Did Joachim deserve the torment? Did Mara do it to avenge her sister? Or for her own gratification?