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Shudder Secrets: Nocebo Explained-Folklore, Faith, And Power Dynamics

By its title alone, it is apparent that Nocebo plays with superstition, doubt, and faith. It also blends Filipino folklore to build a well-placed feature that will leave viewers guessing until its harrowing last act. Lorcan Finnegan‘s latest is a confident film that leads to some warranted yet surprising places. There’s also a message here against the exploitation of other cultures and people, but the film restrains itself from ever becoming overly preachy.

The Shudder exclusive deserves some unpacking. Some slight spoilers below

Nocebo and Mothering

The film establishes its relationships from the get-go. We’re introduced to mom/fashion designer Christine (Eva Green) and her husband Felix (Mark Strong) in the opening minutes. Like his wife, Felix has an all-consuming job as a marketing agent. The couple is first introduced as they rush out the door with their daughter, Bobs (Billie Gadsdon), not far behind. Immediately, they argue over whose turn it is to pick her up. Clearly, their jobs make it difficult to give their daughter all of the time and all of the attention that she needs.

Not long into the runtime, illness strikes Christine after a blind dog ridden with ticks enters her studio. It’s truly a gross-out moment. However, after Christine opens her eyes, the dog is gone. That said, a bug is seen nesting in her neck. This is what the movie does quite well. It’s never totally clear what’s real and what isn’t, including the creepy dog. Did it actually enter her studio, or did Christine imagine it, due to her work stress? Is she on the cusp of a mental breakdown and seeing things, or are paranormal elements at play?

The family finds some relief after a Filipino carer arrives, Diana (Chai Fonacier). However, Christine can’t recall hiring or interviewing her, though Diana assures her that she did and that she needs the help. This only causes more of a rift between wife and husband, as Felix gripes about how much Diana’s help will cost them. Tensions worsen after Diana assists Christine using traditional folk healing. What’s clear is that Christine can’t juggle the demanding job with being a good mother, and she views Diana as a means to at least alleviate some of the stress, despite Felix’s complaints.

Nocebo and Exploitation of Other Cultures and People

Nocebo is not without something to say, though it never beats the viewer over the head. There are plenty of power dynamics at play here, especially between Felix and Diana. Felix’s snide attitude and disregard for other cultures also rub off on his daughter. Upon first meeting Diana, Bobs insists that she call her Roberta, and only her friends are allowed to call her Bobs.

Shortly after Diana meets the whole family, she cooks dinner. Felix’s disparagement of other cultures is on full display. He calls the Filipino dish she cooks “surprisingly good” after initially dismissing it, adding that you never hear about Filipino restaurants or dishes. He sees it as an “untapped market.” While it’s true that Felix is a marketing agent and thinks with that mindset, it’s evident he sees Diana’s culture as something he can exploit, especially as a European man. For a moment, at least, he dreams of making money off of it.

The theme of exploitation is even more pronounced in the film’s final act. The ending especially shouldn’t be spoiled. Let’s just say there’s a reason that Diana shows up at Christine and Felix’s home. It’s not initially for the reason viewers suspect, either. This adds another layer to the film regarding colonialism and exploitation that gives it added depth. It also displays a surprising aspect to Christine that’s not revealed until fairly late into the runtime.

Nocebo, Faith, and Doubt

By definition, nocebo means a harmless substance or treatment that could cause negative or worsening side effects if the patient believes they will occur. The film plays with this concept over and over again. Frequently, Diana tells Christine that for her traditional treatments to work, Christine needs to believe in natural medicine and rituals. Eventually, Christine does believe. She reports to Felix that her body pain and other weird symptoms have disappeared.

These treatments and the issue of faith again put Diana at odds with Felix. He dismisses her remedies and tells Diana that Christine’s illness is all in her head, that it’s due to stress from work. This again highlights his dismissal of cultures foreign to his own and also proves that he doesn’t believe his wife. Ultimately, Diana’s statements about belief matter a heck, especially as it pertains to the film’s striking ending. Without spoiling anything, the conclusion raises the question of whether Christine’s fate actually happened because of Diana’s magical powers or if it was simply in her mind. The film never gives a definite answer. However, at the very least, it’s evident that Christine comes to believe in the rituals that Diana performs.

Overall, Nocebo is a sharp film that explores folklore, faith, superstition, and exploitation. It’s elevated by Green and Fonacier’s performances. This film takes its time before arriving at its well-earned and justified ending that you won’t see coming. The feature comes to Shudder on Feb. 24. Keep updated on the streaming service’s latest content by following my Shudder Secrets column.