An undocumented Filipina woman fights for her future in Paris Zarcilla’s genre-tinged UK-set debut

Raging Grace

Source: SXSW

‘Raging Grace’

Dir/scr: Paris Zarcilla. UK. 2023. 99mins

An undocumented Filipina immigrant in the UK finds herself in an impossible struggle between her past and her future in this bold feature debut from British-born Filipino writer/director Paris Zarcilla. Raging Grace walks its own line between traditional genre filmmaking and contemporary social commentary and, while more effective during its slow-burn first half, effectively draws on the systemic horrors of a traditionally white power structure which purports to help ’outsiders’ while keeping them firmly underfoot.

The careful screenplay ensures that Joy is never a passive victim of circumstance

Zarcilla was BIFA-nominated for his 2018 short film Pommel, and his first feature is likely to hold a similar appeal for festivals and audiences seeking authentic non-conventional stories. Produced by Screen Star Of Tomorrow 2021 Chi Thai, the film’s genre elements may also widen its reach; its genuinely unnerving atmosphere — something it shares with Lorcan Finnegan’s similarly-themed Nocebo — could lead to positive word-of-mouth.

That creeping atmosphere is established immediately, as Joel Honeywell’s camera stalks through an opulent home before coming to rest on the back of a young girl’s head as she draws at her desk. We are put into the uncomfortable position of voyeur, and the ominous, deep-throated hum of Jon Clarke’s visceral score — for which he collaborated with Filipino musicians, using traditional instruments like the Kulintang — adds to our unease. 

Moving out of the room, we are introduced to protagonist Joy (Maxine Eigenmann) in a way that suggests that for her, everyday is something of a waking nightmare. Later, hallucinatory sequences of her actual nightmares hint at a violent incident that has left an indelible mark.

It’s soon established that Joy makes her meagre living as a cleaner for London’s elite and, without a place of her own, she and her young daughter Grace (impressive 10-year-old newcomer Jaeden Boadilla) are hiding out in the vacant homes of absent employers — if they are lucky. If they are not, they bed down in a dirty service room in a block of flats. Unable to get a visa by official means, Joy is saving to buy the documents on the black market; even if the constant suggestion is that she should be content with – and grateful for – the opportunities she has already been given. (Occasional intertitles further make the point, quoting lines from Rudyard Kipling’s 1899 poem ‘The White Man’s Burden’, about the West’s duty to ‘civilise’ the Filipino people.)

Raging Grace was inspired by Zarcilla’s own experiences as a child of the diaspora, and the careful screenplay ensures that Joy is never a passive victim of circumstance. Eigenmann brings depth and dignity to a challenging role — as she did in 2019 Venice Horizons Special Jury prizewinner Verdict — embodying this woman’s desperation without diminishing her autonomy. Even when Joy feels she has no choice but to be subservient, anger and defiance radiate from her in waves. Her dire situation is not her fate; it is a means to an end.

Aside from her living situation, the discrimination Joy faces tends towards the casual and insidious, including throwaway phrases like “you people”. Employers like Katherine (Leanne Best), who has hired Joy to care for her ailing uncle Mr Garrett (an imposing David Hayman) in their sprawling country pile — into which Grace is smuggled in an oversized suitcase — mask their barely-concealed contempt behind the artifice of friendship. They are always quick, however, to put Joy in her place. “Do try to remember that this is your place of work, not your home,” Katherine admonishes.

Katherine, however, has her own past traumas, suggested in the house’s oppressive colour palette, labyrinthine rooms and locked doors. As her personal agenda butts up against that of Joy, events spiral and the film loses its tight focus to become something rather more hysterical — spearheaded by the titular Grace, who has the scales ripped from her eyes — and losing something of its power in the process. Yet it’s not enough of a misstep to detract from the fact that Zarcilla is an exciting new voice with something vital to say.

Production companies: Last Conker

International sales: Blue Finch Film Releasing, Mike Chapman

Producers: Chi Tai

Cinematography: Joel Honeywell

Production design: Amy Addison

Editing: Christopher CF Chow

Music: Jon Clarke

Main cast: Maxine Eigenmann, Jaeden Boadilla, Leanne Best, David Hayman