[AFI Fest 2021 Review] HOLY EMY

[AFI Fest 2021 Review] HOLY EMY
Courtesy AFI Fest
HOLY EMY, directed by Araceli Lemos and written by Araceli Lemos and Giulia Caruso, explores religion, familial bonds, and unexplainable phenomena. The film stars Abigael Loma as Emy, a Filipino girl trying to understand whether her physical condition and abilities are evil. The directing gets uncomfortably up close and personal as events unfold. Holy Emy is a drama with ominous elements as you wonder what Emy’s condition signifies.

At the film’s start, we meet Emy and her older sister Teresa (Hasmine Kilip). They live together—their mom lives elsewhere—and Teresa supports Emy and herself. They are close, but there is an underlying tension, as Teresa does everything she can to keep her sister isolated from crowds of people. Emy often seems angry and rebellious, a natural element for teenagers. Still, when Teresa tells her she can’t come to church to celebrate Teresa’s birthday and Emy arrives anyway, it is apparent something else is happening.

Emy cries blood, although it’s not clear how or why this happens. Teresa shelters Emy but also, due to her religious beliefs and their mom’s past, feels Emy’s condition stems from evil spirits. Neighbor and fellow churchgoer Linda (Angeli Bayani) views Emy’s condition as evil because she is unbaptized. Another nail in the coffin is that Teresa and Emy’s mother was a healer, but left after some scandal. Religious fervor finds fault in anything unexplainable or outside the status quo, especially when those talents reside in a woman or girl. As the film continued, I guessed as to the outcome, but I did not foresee it.

The hypocrisy of westernized religions to cast blame onto people while living in sin (according to their own beliefs) baffles and infuriates. The people around Emy label her, Teresa included, and hinder her from learning about herself. Even when she works for a woman, Mrs. Christina (the late Eirini Inglesi), with questionable ties to her mom’s past, though helpful, Christina exploits Emy for money. It’s not an accident that everyone around Emy, save for her sister, labeling and controlling her, is light-skinned compared to Emy’s brown skin as well. Teresa’s trash boyfriend, Argyris (Mihalis Siriopoulos), even tries to convince Emy to partner with him to charge people for watching her weep blood. Emy has no agency until the end when she pulls free.

The acting, particularly between the sisters, stands out thanks to their knockout performances. They display sisterly love that stays despite conflict. Even when Teresa is pregnant, terrified Emy is the cause of her pain; Teresa wants her near yet does not allow Emy to touch her stomach. Abigael Loma balances teenage angst with a resentment composed of how those around her treat her.

The story and plot hold the attention. The story of their mom is unclear, but the rest of the story works. The graphic scenes do not stretch my tolerance for grotesque imagery, but it is disconcerting to watch nonetheless. Emy’s decisions, like working for Mrs. Christina, are a path of discovery, and essentially that’s what the film is about. HOLY EMY blends a teenager’s search for identity and understanding with elements many of us encounter as kids. HOLY EMY is dramatic, uncomfortable, and worth watching.

HOLY EMY had its North American premiere at this year’s AFI Fest.

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