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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Thursday, September 10, 2015

entry arrow1:49 AM | Bayan o Sarili

I honestly didn't expect the many comic moments in Jerrold Tarrog's Heneral Luna (2015), but the conceit the director takes for this historiographic film is a breath of fresh air in the usually textbookish veneration we give cinematic depictions of historical figures. Marilou Diaz-Abaya's José Rizal (1998), of course, is the greatest example of this genre and its pitfalls -- beautifully shot, exquisitely produced, finely-acted, quite well-meaning and earnest, and dull. The only relative triumphs from that era of moviemaking of this type had been Raymond Red's double whammy of Bayani (1992) and Sakay (1993), and perhaps Tikoy Aguiluz's Rizal sa Dapitan (1997). Needless to say, I prefer to forget the very existence of Carlo J. Caparas' Tirad Pass: The Story of Gen. Gregorio del Pilar (1997) -- but there you go.

Lately, we've had a spate of historical biographies invading our cinemas that gave us the idea that perhaps the historical is back in vogue. Consider Mark Meily's El Presidente (2012) and Enzo Williams's Bonifacio: Ang Unang Pangulo (2014) -- but they haven't exactly signalled a decisive return for a difficult genre to engage in, simply because, as singular pieces of filmmaking, both were utter failures -- one of vision, and the other of execution. When we first heard of Heneral Luna in a spate of marketing that suddenly appeared a few months ago, it did nothing to dispel the quickly sinking idea that perhaps the historical biography was one genre of Filipino film that was worth exploring. Nobody seemed to know how to do it right. Then again, it is a tricky genre to succeed well in film: (1) the history either renders the drama flat -- a problem of a screenplay unable to provide new pulse to the well-known textbook story, or (2) the demands of rendering the specific historical era simply becomes overwhelmed by the tidal wave of contemporary details that revoke a believable rendering of the past -- a problem of production design, where all the clothes usually look too new.

Heneral Luna survives the first test with a screenplay that's deft and poetic. It does not exactly fare well with the second -- but only by the severest nitpicking. There is a visionary power to the film, however, that makes its weaknesses seem marginal. And there are weaknesses: some pacing issues, the curiously unremarkable acting by an otherwise formidable cast of supporting actors, and, well, the existence of clothes [costumes!] that look too new.

Nonetheless, the film succeeds despite these, and succeeds with the ferocity of its titular character -- a tragic hero of the Philippine Revolution, a military genius opposed to the colonisation of the Philippines by America. Our history books tell us about the temper and the arrogance of General Antonio Luna, which perhaps cost him his life -- and the film does not shy away from that depiction: John Arcilla's military general is tempestuous and bombastic.

And funny.

It is this levity that surprises me the most -- and we had no idea we needed this subterfuge of humor to underscore the wriggly realities of the Philippine-American War.

I like the movie very much. And I love its carefully staged small moments more than the big scenes of political intrigues. (Consider that carefully choreographed meeting of the various personas of the Aguinaldo government at the very beginning of the film and the way the camera takes in the weight of the heated conversation and at the same time introduces us to the key players of this story -- Emilio Aguinaldo, Antonio Luna, Apolinario Mabini, Felipe Buencamino, Pedro Paterno. Consider also the audaciously staged one-take sequence where Luna reconnects with his younger past, and shows us the stages of his growth to become the military leader of the new Republic. Consider the juxtaposition of a guitar solo and the decision for betrayal.) It is, over all, a film that has to be congratulated for being so assured. Above all, it must be congratulated for containing a singular occasion for acting bravura: this is a document of a very powerful performance by John Arcilla, in a star-turn that remains deeply a character actor's shining moment.

The film is wickedly funny, poking fun at things where we least expect them. And yet it is also ultimately sad, the way it distills for us the smallness of our vision as a people, which is our perhaps our greatest frailty. (Was Nick Joaquin right after all?) The movie tells us, in the end, that the greatest enemy of the Filipino is himself. We looked at the steady stream of betrayals we constantly see by the people we elect into government, and we realise that not much has changed a hundred years hence.

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