With The Nun releasing this weekend, America continues its most recent obsession with possession films. And why not? When done well, these types of good versus evil stories can be some of the best in the genre. Just look at The Exorcist. Plus, they’re generally scary as hell, or at least good for a few tosses of your popcorn in the air. Having played yesterday at the Philadelphia Unnamed Film Festival (PUFF), Luciferina proves just how effective these films can be, and how differently other cultures perceive the sub-genre…
…Written/directed by Gonzalo Calzada (Resurrection), the Argentinian film stars Sofia Del Tuffo as Natalia, a young nun who returns home to say goodbye to her dying father. Soon, she and her sister decide to travel with their friends to a jungle, where there are rumors of a mystical plant with healing powers. In searching out the plant, Natalia and her clan happen upon a dark temple where they encounter blood, death, and the Devil himself.
Calzada immediately sets the mood for Luciferina. This is a patient film, with unbelievably eerie settings and imagery. For example, upon returning home, Natalia discovers that her deceased mother has left behind numerous paintings, all drawn with her own blood. The sight of the paintings is, quite frankly, ghastly, and between his framing and impeccable score, Calzada makes sure we understand that Luciferina is a film that is going to make its audience uncomfortable in the best kind of way. He and cinematographer Claudio Beiza are exceptionally skilled at building tension throughout by combining slow building scares with excellent production design by Catalina Oliva that often creates a dark, gothic atmosphere that is a treat for horror fans. One stand out moment involves a dream of Natalia’s in which she is standing in a foggy garden, and behind her we see the frightening corpse of her mother, getting closer and closer each time the camera swings back to her, ratcheting up our heart rates because we know what’s going to come and Calzada greatly enjoys drawing out the terror.
It’s obvious right away just how different horror films have become in other markets compared to America. If you look at the list of any sort of possession/haunting film to come out in the past decade (The Nun, Annabelle, The Conjuring), they all have one thing in common: Jump scares. And LOTS of them. Some, like The Conjuring, employ a well-written enough concept to make up for overloading its audience with non-stop frights, (it also helps that James Wan is the man), but most tend to sputter and crash, because when a horror film relies solely on the cheap trick of jolting an audience rather than actually scaring them, eventually, they become numb to it. But that’s not the case with Luciferina. The chills and thrills in Calzada’s film are genuine. His goal isn’t to see how high he can make you jump, but how long he can keep you awake at night, wondering what’s causing that creaking in the hallway. Luciferina is a visual portal to hell that never lets the audience feel safe during its entire two hour run time.
But perhaps what really sets the film so far apart from modern American possession films is how much it becomes the ultimate clash between good and Evil. Del Tuffo is an angelic beacon, burning through the darkness like an overpowering light. Natalia is a fascinating character, a good person with her own secrets. She takes what some might consider a “weakness” (her virginity), and uses it more like a weapon. Essentially, Natalia is a beautiful badass, a perfect force of good that draws the audience in with a captivating performance by Del Tuffo. Del Tuffo is raw and personal in her role, giving us an utterly daring portrayal that shook me with how powerful it is. The rest of the cast surrounding her is fine, but Del Tuffo stands out like the voice of God in a quiet library.
Comic book fans will appreciate that, in some ways, Luciferina feels like a truly unique good versus the devil story, because, it just so happens that Natalia has some powers of her own, which includes being able to see whether or not people are surrounded by a light, or a darkness, representing the good or evil in them. While this power isn’t really used to much effect, it adds to the sense that the whole film feels like destiny, much like most super hero origins. Often, there is an evil which creates the hero and is eventually faced by said hero. Without giving away any spoilers, Luciferina has a similar concept, which makes it the closest film I can think of to The Exorcist in terms of being a long-gestated showdown between the Devil and an embodiment of Good. I’m in no way saying that the films are on equal footing, just that Luciferina has a rich plot and backstory that makes it stand out from your basic “family moves into a house and one of them gets possessed” stories. Luciferina is much more interesting than that, and rewards patience.
And for those who are wondering whether Luciferina is a CGI scare fest or a practical FX creepshow, it’s the latter. Calzada chooses to use CGI only when absolutely necessary, instead gifting his audience with gory, nightmarish images that are few, but impressive. However, I must say that not now, or before, or ever, will a CGI baby in the womb scene look good on film. It can’t be done. I have never seen it work. I will never see it work. And I implore filmmakers everywhere to never, ever plug a fetus in the womb scene into their films again. This is the one and only effect that completely took me out of the film for a moment, it looks that painfully bad, and isn’t all that necessary. IT. NEVER. LOOKS. RIGHT. Okay, moving on.
Calzada makes one other mistake (debatable depending on your taste), by eliminating most of the body count about halfway through the film. This comes down to a matter of preference, but for me, I enjoy horror films that slowly build to the bloodshed, rather than having it come early (that’s what she said?) What Calzada and his script does is leave us with an hour-long sort of “preparation” between Natalia and her ultimate showdown with the demon that is terrorizing she and her friends. Luckily, Luciferina isn’t slowed by this, thanks to Calzada’s more than capable writing, but it does feel as if the film becomes less scary at that point and more like the horror version of Rocky. Cue the montage of Natalia using a rosary like nunchucks and shouting prayers as she practices jujitsu. I’m kidding, it’s nothing like that, thought the feel of the second half is vaguely familiar to that, but not in any way which lessens the quality of the film, only the anticipation of more scares and great effects.
Luciferina gets under the skin early and often, building to a climax that you have to see to believe. There is nothing quite like the sexual battle which Natalia engages in, and it only furthers the idea that the American film industry is about as prude as it gets when it comes to sex, because I can’t imagine an American studio ever having the courage to put something like THAT on screen. Luciferina isn’t perfect, and may be too slow for some, but for those looking for a raw possession film that’s unlike anything we get here in America these days, Luciferina may be exactly what you’re looking for.
By Matt Konopka