And the enemy is us
KRIPOTKIN - Alfred A. Yuson (The Philippine Star) - August 16, 2015 - 10:00am

First off, I must confess to a degree of trepidation whenever I start to watch a local historical film. I’m ready to be disappointed with blazing tropical colors, spic-and-span costumes and transparently faux backdrops that all betray a filmmaking process evidently undertaken only yesterday.

I exaggerate. But you know what I mean. All the extras that play the revolutionary period’s cast of hundreds, for instance, are mostly fair-skinned urban folk and not at all like the dark, sullen-faced, wiry figures we’ve seen in vintage photographs.

The Westerners who play American officers look like they were picked up from a Malate bar or a BID cell, act like hokeys and speak hokum dialogue. Those who play Spanish colonizers, inclusive of fat friars, get away with a measure of authenticity only because they’re usually Pinoy tisoy actors who’ve had years of training to look and act the part. 

Suspension of disbelief becomes a sensitive point in such fictive cinematic exercises. Because, let’s face it, we’re supposed to go on time travel and be brought back to the often dim and murky past. It’s easier for this disbelief to be suspended for a futuristic movie, since anything out of the ordinary can be of the future, if not horror or fantasy. But we think we know the past, even if the period essayed onscreen is of several generations or millennia removed.

Thus, we shake our heads when Lapulapu and his men engage Magellan and his musket-wielding cohorts in a choreography reminiscent of some coastal town’s annual dance fest, featuring bamboo spears that appear to have been purchased from garden shops.    

We have an inkling of authenticity; whether or not that’s based on historical reality doesn’t matter. We have to be brought back to a believable past.

Somehow, black-and-white movies (both local and foreign) of the war years of the 1940s, even of the revolutionary period, escape this demand for the stamp of period reality. Maybe it’s because we immediately accept that we’re watching a shadow play of sorts. The colors we associate with the present, and imaginably, that dim past, do not come into play.

I’ve had recent discussions with experts regarding the technical functions of cinematography that can be brought to bear for effective period filmmaking. But we can’t get into that now.

Suffice it to say that while even as a boy I thrilled to the “authentic” grit of Anak Dalita with its setting of a post-war Intramuros, in turn have I cringed over brightly colored scenes in the supposedly epic Baler of some years back, and even of Amigo which was helmed by a reputable American scenarist-director. Somehow, the tropical sun seemed to be the culprit. But how come it didn’t seem so in Oro, Plata, Mata?

You’ll have to forgive this pasakalye as I extend it further. I want you in on the step-by-step initiation I underwent with this historical movie I will shortly rave about.

Not only did I breathe a sigh of relief, but actually found myself immensely grateful to have been invited to catch the advance screening exactly a week ago of Heneral Luna, for the benefit of the Hero Foundation.

Why, I even ran across a real general whom I’ve always admired, Gen. Renato de Villa, who heads that foundation. Good to see him still hale and hearty. Then there were old buddies Mon Faustmann, Dong Alegre and Ronnie Lazaro, who plays a small but significant part in the movie. I got to thank producer Nando Ortigas and executive producer Eddie Rocha for my ticket.

Beyond these people, I knew next to nothing of the production. I had only heard of an earlier venture, Bonifacio, starring Robin Padilla, which took some awards in last year’s Metro Manila Film Fest, but apparently failed to recoup much of the substantial investment. Heard too of how it was leagues better than the earlier Aguinaldo, which starred an actor-producer-politician whose film posters shared the same template, as of a gangster movie. And now there was this third biopic, on the third intriguing figure of our revolutionary heyday.

In any case, after the speeches (since it was for a benefit), we settled back in our seats for the screening, me with my habitually cautious “Aber?” that was more for the sake of friends involved in the production.

The first item to note critically was the use, as an initial structural frame, of a young journalist interviewing Gen. Antonio Luna. It’s been done before. But the scenes prove effective. They are well-shot, well-acted, well-scripted, efficiently staged — all for establishing the crux of the revolutionary matter, in medias res or in the thick of things narrative-wise: how the General was seen to be too hot-tempered as an arrogant disciplinarian who cut no slack for anyone or anything that diverged from his passionate view that the revolution had to be continued, this time against the even more powerful Americans.           

Then a charming, in fact brilliant, metaphor for disunity among the Filipino revolutionary forces: Gen. Luna distributes a new uniform he himself has designed. A Caviteño officer who already sports the old one expresses disdain, and only holds his peace when told that El Presidente Emilio Aguinaldo himself has given approval.

The narrative-advancing interview with the bespectacled, earnest-looking man invariably cuts to dramatic, impassioned discourse among the revolutionary leaders. We are introduced to Aguinaldo, Mabini, Buencamino, Paterno, and the dynamics among them vis-à-vis Antonio Luna.

All of them are rendered exceedingly well by actors of the first water: Mon Confiado, Epy Quizon, Nonie Buencamino, Leo Martinez and John Arcilla, respectively. We begin to realize that here’s a director, Jerrod Tarog, who not only respects his material but goes to great lengths to mine it for all it’s worth. And we are mostly assured, for the rest of the film, that our time is not wasted by this noble, creative enterprise that is this historical film.

Arcilla as Antonio Luna becomes the driving force with his admirable immersion in his role: obsessive, petulant, given to light moments with his own men, a strict implementer of Articulo Uno: that he has the power as military commander to call anyone into account.

But each one in the acting ensemble does his part. Confiado et al. are commendably believable as these historic figures we have read about, conflicting accounts and all, with their all-too-human frailties and other dimensions rendered consummately onscreen.   

Even the prospectively dubious features of antagonists, in the persons of the often-much-maligned Buencamino and Paterno, as well as the officers of the Cavite contingent with whom Luna tangles with increasing frequency, are laid bare with an eye towards acceptable, optional versions of history.

But it is Tarog’s orchestration that lifts Heneral Luna towards memorability. The narrative rhythm he establishes never slackens, even with the “breathers” lyric or comic that genuinely dissects an intense period of time.

The battle scenes may be predictable; the trench warfare evidencing Luna’s professionalism as a military commander has that air of credulity despite the tropical brightness. Here is where artistic license becomes welcome, inclusive of the heroic charge that may or may not have happened. Once the suspension of our disbelief is effected, we will take anything short of historical burlesque. (Well, in fact, even that, possibly, as with Lincoln as vampire slayer, as long as form follows function well into artistic fruition.)

We will accept any romantic or sexual interlude as part of the story; never mind if it may not have happened. It’s all part of fleshing up character and entertaining narrative.

Tarog’s essentially forceful rhythm turns it into a riveting story. So powerful and driven it becomes, leading toward a climax we already know, that it can even luxuriate in those lyrical breathers and well-chosen metaphors.

Terrific decision it was to render the throwback scenes of boyhood backgrounder and propaganda days in Madrid and Paris, as well as idylls with nurturing mothers, as seamless dream sequences, where we’re not so much as merely re-introduced to Juan Luna, Jose Rizal et al. but ensconced in the rich context of the formation of the revolutionary spirit.

Terrific “touches” all throughout: the “busy” character of Capt. Eduardo Rusca (played by Archie Alemania), Luna’s aide, who’s always chewing on something, or peeing in the distance when he’s urgently called in by his boss, even irritably arguing with the assassins before he surrenders; Rizal’s execution rendered mythopeically; the “sharpshooting” sequence involving Lt. Garcia (Ronnie Lazaro); the imagistic curtseys to Juan Luna’s painting of the Parisienne lady in a café, and of course his “Spoliarium” when his brother’s and Col. Paco Roman’s (Joem Bascon) bodies are dragged off; and finally that symbolic burning flag that Luna conceivably confronts with his questions on self and family before country.

Luna’s scene with his mother, and Aguinaldo’s with his own, speak volumes of how it is to be larger-than-life Filipino, whether as hero or anti-hero. That Luna’s grisly assassination ends with one unseen mother’s simplistic query from a window — “Nagalaw pa ba iyan?” — makes for memorable cinema.

There’s also that brief lyrical scene where Luna scans the countryside from atop a hill, shot as if from a soaring modern-day drone, that gives him the contemplative moment enriching his love of (and vision for) country. 

At this point we have to give everyone credit for participation in this film — the other actors: Lorenz Martinez as Gen. Tomas Mascardo, Ketchup Eusebio as Capt. Janolino, Mylene Dizon as Isabel, Bing Pimentel as Doña Laureana Luna, Alvin Anson as Gen. Jose Alejandrino and Art Acuna as Gen. Manuel Bernal. You all deserve to take a bow, as with everyone else who served in this first-class endeavor. 

“Sarili o bayan?” — the question is asked. Luna also states dramatically at one point that more than the Americans, the Filipino’s enemy was himself. Fast-forward then to the present: surely that shock of recognition still applies? 

Here’s where we depart from cinema’s own artistic and technical values and move towards the educational, inspirational realm. Some films succeed in doing that, surging out of its comfort zone to disturb the comfortable.

Heneral Luna does that. It succeeds in transcending its essential form and function. I’m glad to hear that it has already toured a score of universities to address that responsibility — of posing those questions to our so-called millennials.  

Heneral Luna goes on regular theater screening on Sept. 9. Readers, kindly indulge me on this one rare advocacy for the present: Experience the film.

A CAVITE ACIRC ALVIN ANSON ANTONIO LUNA ATILDE EVEN HENERAL LUNA JUAN LUNA LUNA NBSP WELL
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