Vox Populi is a film that comes several months too late. If this film were shown before the elections, it would've been one of the most important films of the year - not outcome changing, but definitely one of the most important. This is truly sad as there is one scene in the candidate's van at the start of the film that explains traditional local elections in a tidy nutshell. If they found a way to integrate a showbiz candidate in there, it would tell you all. With the local elections represented in this film acting as a microcosm of our national elections, that would make Vox Populi a dabbler in educational film. All of that is lost because of when it was shown.
The Road Ahead
While it's timing is a disappointment, the camera work is a frustration. It was intentionally given the shaky look of a badly hand held camera perhaps to impart a sense of documentary and realism to it. Instead, it gave the impression of the attempt but not it's success. A tripod for several of the shots would've performed miracles for the camera work but even for shots that the shakiness served no purpose, it was retained seemingly to maintain what can only be called shakiness continuity.
The film follows candidate Connie as she makes her final rounds in this last day of the campaign period and we meet fictional representations of some very real characters. We meet the stand-ins for the Iglesia, the Catholic Church, the Chinese Business Council, the Makati Business Club, the Crime Lord, the Mentor and many others - but no insurgents. Every meeting Connie has, she does one of her prepared lines (more on that in a minute) and loses just a bit more of her soul while holding onto what's left for dear life. Surprisingly, she tends to succeed.
Connie's successes seem outright even as they are actually compromises. It tends to become unbelievable when all parties concerned are happy at the outcome. Vox Populi ignores the fact that in many if not most deals, someone gets screwed badly. It's the result of the persistence of the camera on candidate Connie so we never see what those bigwigs thought or say afterward, only what Connie speculates about it.
We even meet those who are caught in the crossfire as well as the repercussions of their decisions. The film never tries to justify those decisions, just present us with the argument and whatever impressions it leaves are up to us to determine. Along with the bigwigs, we also meet those with political innocence and it's a message not so much to our youth but to the candidates who would use them. The purity of their intentions is something that empowers instead of shames candidate Connie here and it's something that should never be abused.
A friend of mine said that Vox Populi is the first film he has seen as Cinemalaya where every single one of the actors present in the film was believable. The list of believables in an indie usually stops at the main cast and even before that. In Vox Populi, even the extras were commendable. Somehow they even managed to wrangle the crowd around them to behave properly. From the palengkeros to the handshakers to every single person onscreen, there was not a single miss among them. Among the supporting cast, there are only a few familiar faces and that made everybody so believable. When we meet a jueteng lord, you really think that the guy is a jueteng lord. The bodyguard looks like a bodyguard. This is perfect casting and great micromanagement directing at work here as it looked like they were all being natural as their characters and didn't even know there was a camera there.
Irma Adlawan plays the candidate known as Connie, a candidate for local elections who is neither cartoonishly pure and moral nor fiendish or devious. She is a character for whom we draw our own conclusions about morality. Irma Adlawan has a very deserved reputation for her acting prowess but she is shackled by some of the most stilted discourses anybody can write and say whenever she meets one of the bigwigs in her town. That's how polluticians actually talk. They talk like bad actors. Irma was in that odd position where to best portray her character in those situations, she has to act like a bad actor without actually being one. That's a pretty tall order and Irma is up to it. She gives her candidate's politispeak the right amount of restrained truth and deflection and puts it into context so her performance doesn't suffer. That's a pretty neat achievement.
In a film such as Vox Populi where even the extras are remarkable and Irma Adlawan is given a Mission: Impossible that she carries out, the standout performance is given by Julio Diaz in the supporting role of the campaign manager Tony. This year's Cinemalaya is all about shattering misconceptions and Julio Diazes portrayal of what is a dirty job usually handed to what we see as less scrupulous individuals resonates with morality. His is a voice almost angelic amongst all these morally ambiguous and confused characters. When he offers his advice, you can hear all the internal dialogue of the character and inner conflict as he balances getting the win with doing it right. When he reminds Connie of her platform and her impending meeting with a fearful character, you can tell that the character contemplated deeply how exactly to tell her what he thought about it with just one line. He delivers each and every single one of his lines with that much significance. Julio Diaz was so good, he made the camera stand still for him whenever he spoke. It was a brilliantly written character and brilliantly acted. This was the best performance I've seen so far at Cinemalaya, bar none.
Vox Populi tells us nothing we don't already know about the elections but dramatisation assembles all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle and presents a more complete picture than we would otherwise have. So much of Vox Populi could've been so much more. Even the jittery camera work could've been forgiven and forgotten if this film was shown much earlier. Sadly, it is that poor timing of the film's premiere that stays more than the film itself. As good as the acting is, the timing just relieves it of too much of it's relevance. Vox Populi is the greatest coulda been candidate of the year.