Raging Grace is a sociopolitical thriller that might wander too far into the absurd but does so with immense confidence and style.
In a crowd discussion following the screening of his new film Raging Grace, director Paris Zarcilla described the process of filmmaking as “the breaking of [his] old self” – and this destructive introspection is something that bleeds through the screen of his debut feature. Following the plights of an illegal immigrant named Joy (Max Eigenmann) as she’s forced to investigate a dark mystery at work, Raging Grace plays with concepts of racism, classism and white privilege in a way that’s consistently creative and entertaining.
Joy’s character is a fascinating one, both incredibly personal and extremely universal to the struggles of countless immigrants across the world. She’s the first to suffer at her white employers’ microaggressions and the last to complain about them, which makes her an incredibly likable and relatable protagonist. The film is told primarily from her perspective, with the audience uncovering the mystery at the same time as her, which is an extremely engaging way of interacting with the story. Zarcilla never sheds complete light on the details of the story until they’re absolutely necessary, which displays a level of restraint that’s rarely seen in debut movies.
Raging Grace’s mantra is evident from the very beginning: even in this Gothic setting, with the perfect set-up and execution of horror movie tropes, the scariest thing for this immigrant family is the minor abuses they suffer every single day. It’s such a personal condemnation of the world we live in, born from a force that Zarcilla himself described as “a supernova of rage.” There are times when he presents this through the facade of comedy, but buried beneath all the laughs is a constant sense of unease that places the audience directly into Joy’s shoes.
The most memorable asset in Raging Grace’s arsenal is the hauntingly intense score (Jon Clarke), which takes traditional instruments from Filipino culture and distorts them into something disturbingly unfamiliar that excellently represents Joy’s complex relationship with her own culture. Combine that with the electric editing and distressing camera work, and you get an excellent level of technical prowess that sets Zarcilla’s work apart from most other directorial debuts housing such ambition and style.
The actual story of Raging Grace will hit different notes for different audiences. The first act is really strong, introducing these characters and clearly establishing the themes in a way that feels natural and accessible – but the film’s rapid descent into more absurd, stylized storytelling doesn’t always work perfectly. To Raging Grace’s benefit, the film is never predictable or boring – but that’s often because it takes such wild swings that don’t always land or even make sense for these characters. Much of the horror comes from the inability to anticipate what’s going to happen, shocking the audience instead of actually creating that growing tension when it’s needed.
The plot also takes plenty of twists and turns that feel like they only exist to be provocative and surprising. Without delving too heavily into spoilers, Raging Grace features several bait-and-switch moments in the final act that ultimately fall flat, partly because the bait wasn’t really convincing in the first place and partly because the switch just feels forced and unnecessary. However, it’s so clear that Raging Grace’s boldness and eccentricity are a consequence of the authenticity and humanity that went into its creation, which is such an endearing feature for personal stories to display. Zarcilla put his entire heart and soul into this story, and while the result might have been messy in parts, that’s just the quiet echo of such an emotionally charged creative process.
Raging Grace premiered at the 2023 Edinburgh Film Festival in August. Read our list of films to watch at the 2023 Edinburgh Film Festival!