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Entertainment

‘1521’ attempts to sell itself as a Filipino producer’s reimagining of Battle of Mactan

Ferdinand Topacio - The Philippine Star
�1521� attempts to sell itself as a Filipino producer�s reimagining of Battle of Mactan
In this retelling of the Battle of Mactan, the writers chose to use, as a plot device, a fictional love story between a native babaylan, or spiritual healer Diwata (played by Bea) and one of Magellan’s crew members, Enrique, who acted as the expedition’s interpreter .
STAR / File

“1521: The Quest for Love and Freedom” proudly touts itself as an international movie, and it is, definitely. For one, it stars the redoubtable Hollywood character actor Danny Trejo (“Machete,” “From Dusk Till Dawn,” “The Replacement Killers”) as Ferdinand Magellan, Australian Costas Mandylor (the “Saw” series), Fil-Am Michael Copon (“Power Rangers”), and Mexican Hector David Jr. (“Power Rangers”) in the lead roles, side by side with our very own Bea Alonzo, an institution in Philippine cinema, and a slew of other Filipino actors.

It also attempts to sell itself as a Filipino producer’s reimagining of the saga of Lapu-Lapu and his epic battle with Magellan, the first European who tried to colonize our country (or at least a part of it in the Visayas) in the name of a foreign king.

Fil-Am Michael Copon is Lapu Lapu, hailed as our first Filipino hero who repelled a foreign invasion.

Having kicked European ass, Lapu-Lapu is hailed as our first Filipino hero who repelled a foreign invasion, never mind that historical data say that he was an immigrant from Borneo.

In this retelling, the writers chose to use, as a plot device, a fictional love story between a native babaylan, or spiritual healer (played by Bea) and one of Magellan’s crew members, Enrique, who acted as the expedition’s interpreter. The plan, handled well, could have worked. In the case of this movie, it was not; it merely muddled the all-too-familiar narrative.

The international movie stars the Hollywood character actor Danny Trejo (rightmost) as Ferdinand Magellan.

This by-the-numbers movie ticks all the boxes: the rivalry between Rajah Humabon and Lapu-Lapu; the gullibility of many natives into converting into a Western religion; the arrogance and superiority complex of the Spaniards (actually many sailors of Magellan were Portuguese, as he himself was); the defiance and intractability of Lapu-Lapu; and the iconic battle where a handful of Europeans mistakenly thought (alas, fatally, in Magellan’s case) that the shock and awe of armor and gunpowder would cow the primitive natives.

Shot mainly in Palawan, the production design by Nono Garcia Nebres had received criticisms from historians far more qualified than I am (I only have a minor in history for my English literature baccalaureate). I have read that the tattoo designs were all wrong, the style of armor not period-correct, even the clothes of the natives were out of sync with what were already historically-settled and readily available on the Internet. As a reviewer, however, I do not wish to nitpick, as I have always believed that a good story arc, coupled with excellent acting, would always paper over some shortcomings in production design. This is where, just as Magellan did, the filmmakers made their miscalculation.

(Interpreter) Green Power Ranger, Hector David Jr.

As I’ve said, the plot is already familiar to every high school student. To the movie’s credit, the pacing was sufficiently brisk so as not to belabor the obvious. But to its demerit, the characterizations never went beyond the two-dimensional “Spaniards bad-Lapu-Lapu good” account that we all grew up with. No attempts were made to endow the protagonists with any nuance or depth of character. Many in the talented cast were thus wasted with cardboard depictions written in the script.

To be fair, Danny Trejo, a seasoned Hollywood villain, gives his Magellan his best shot, vainly trying to imbue his character with a moral ambivalence, but he can only do so much with a thin script. Bea Alonzo, whom I greatly admire as an actress, seems to have given up on the shallow writing and, coupled with (reportedly) some problems with the movie’s producers, was evidently sleepwalking through her role. Copon, acting like a surly, low-rent Steven Segal, was sufficiently convincing as the recalcitrant chieftain. The rest of the cast, competent as they are, had very little to work on, but their earnest efforts surely elevated the movie and prevented it from sliding down into the middling.

Felicitations must also be given to the producers for their effort to make an international movie starring our local artists, but the confused direction bogs down their vision. For one, the use of purely English dialogue in order to angle for a wider worldwide audience, while laudable, was touch and go. Since English was the primary language for the lines, it was presumed that it stood in for the vernacular, as the natives spoke it. Why then do the Spaniards alternate between Spanish and English? This gives the impression that they knew how to speak the native tongue. This also negates the need for an interpreter, who was Lorenzo, Bea’s love interest.

Ultimately, what does the movie in is its reliance on the imaginary take of ill-fated love that runs the entire thread of the story arc, making the historical saga surreal. The twist at the ending, where the movie abruptly transports itself to the present day, was jarring and ruins whatever factual pretensions the film still retained by that point. Like the actual clash which was a bewildering melee battle between natives and foreigners, “1521” is a melee of a movie, as sketchy as the few surviving accounts of the Battle of Mactan.

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