The mean streets of the Philippines become a testing ground for one young man caught between right and wrong, and life and death, in the coming-of-age crime thriller, The Gospel of the Beast. Written and directed by Sheron Dayoc (Women of the Weeping River), this gritty, despairing look at a country wracked by drugs, robbery and murder is less about the violence — of which there are a few gory examples — than about the limited choices available in a place where poverty seems to eclipse any morality. Premiering in competition at the Tokyo International Film Festival, the well-made if sometimes generic feature should see additional festival play and pickups by streaming services.
Dayoc gives us a hint of what’s to come during a blood-soaked opening sequence set in a slaughterhouse, where 15-year-old Mateo (Jansen Pagpusao) dismembers pigs to help support his brother and sister. When he’s not knee-deep in animal parts, Mateo attends high school but is hardly able to pay attention in class. The fact that his father has mysteriously disappeared, putting the family in dire straits, does not make his life any easier.
The Gospel of the Beast
The Bottom Line
Tough and tender.
Venue: Tokyo International Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Jansen Pagpusao, Ronnie Lazaro, Nathan Sotto, John Renz Javier
Director: Sheron Dayoc
Screenwriters: Sheron Dayoc, Jeko Aguado
1 hour 25 minutes
After Mateo accidentally kills a rival during an afterschool fight, he has no choice but to flee town and seek protection in the arms of Uncle Berto (Ronnie Lazaro), a close companion of his missing father who leads a band of thieves and killers. Much of The Gospel of the Beast tracks Mateo’s slow initiation at Berto’s behest into Filipino thug life, charting how the irreverent but sweet-faced youth gradually transforms into a hard-nosed criminal.
He moves into an abandoned villa that Berto’s clan has converted into a combination college dorm/torture center, bringing victims back at the request of a wealthy mafioso who utilizes their services.
At first, Mateo is put off by all the dead bodies — which are very much treated like the slaughterhouse pigs — and he seems to be waiting for the right moment to get the hell out of there. But the gang also has its benefits: not only in terms of a livelihood, which is no small matter for the poverty-stricken teenager, but in terms of the camaraderie he’s never been able to find elsewhere.
If Dayoc’s film treads familiar ground, especially during the first act, it distinguishes itself afterwards by lucidly depicting how gangs can often function like surrogate families for kids with nowhere else to turn. Mateo not only gets the hang of being a bad guy, but starts to relish it, befriending another boy, Gudo (John Renz Javier), who moves into the villa. Their relationship is soon tested by the other members, as well as by Berto, forcing Mateo to decide where his allegiances lie: with his new family or himself.
The choice he winds up making speaks to the utter helplessness of his situation, and The Gospel of the Beast feels both realistic and determinedly fatalistic, offering little redemption for Mateo or others like him. Dayoc’s vision of his country’s youth is certainly a grim one, and yet the director never resorts to mere poverty porn, focusing instead on the upsides of communal gang life, including in a drunken singalong sequence filled with tenderness and warmth.
There’s warmth also in cinematographer Rommel Andreo Sales’ lensing, which is less despairing than the world it depicts, giving the locations a certain dreamlike quality. That aesthetic gibes well with the film’s coming-of-age narrative, in which a young boy turns into a man while learning a few life lessons in the process. The catch, though, is that this is the modern-day Philippines, and so what Mateo learns is not, as one would hope, to eventually do the right thing, but rather to harness the beast within.