EXCLUSIVE: While he’s in post-production on The Ashram, which The Orchard is releasing domestically, director Ben Rekhi last week wrapped filming on his follow-up, Maria. The feature thriller is based on a true story and stars Italian-Filipino actress Alessandra de Rossi in the title role.

Set against the drug wars in the Philippines, the timely story finds Maria fending for her three children alone after her husband is murdered under mysterious circumstances. As she delves into Manila’s dark underworld of cops, criminals and drugs to find answers, she realizes she must explore her own darkness to keep her family safe.

De Rossi starred in 2017’s Kita Kita, the highest-grossing local film of the year, and previously appeared in Lav Diaz’s 485-minute A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery. She won the Filipino Academy Award at age 16 for her role in Azucena.

Maria (working title) also stars Metro Manila‘s Jake Macapagal and actors Arthur Acuna, Jess Mendoza and Angeli Bayani.

Former IM Global executive Rekhi says what drew him to Maria was learning of so-called extra-judicial killings in the Philippines. Since President Rodrigo Duterte came to power in June 2016, he has faced widespread condemnation from human rights groups who claim he is inciting such unlawful killings and stripping potential victims of their right to a fair trial, reports of which have in some cases been dismissed as “alternative facts.”

Says Rekhi: “Beyond the disinformation and deception that is being perpetrated, what really struck me about the murders were the personal stories of loss and the devastation it creates for a family. It wasn’t until I heard of this true story of a mother going to extreme lengths to put food on the table for her kids that I realized just how complicated and tragic this situation is. I couldn’t be more thrilled to work with this internationally-renowned cast and crew to bring this story to light, a cautionary tale that will resonate around the world in the current political climate.”

Filipino screenwriter Onay Sales co-wrote the script with Rekhi. Producers are Brenda Gilbert for Bron Life, a division of Bron Studios; and Dondon Monteverde and Erik Matti of Reality Entertainment (Honor Thy Father, On The Job, Buy Bust).

Rekhi’s The Ashram is a spiritual thriller set in the Indian Himalayas that stars Melissa Leo, Sam Keeley and Kal Penn. It releases domestically on March 27.