The Moises Padilla Story (Gerardo de Leon, 1961)
The print is of abysmal state. Obvious decay and deterioration due to the natural climate of the Philippines and the unnatural apathy of the government to preserve artistic treasure give permanent stains to the screening. The soundtrack was at some points of the film unbearable: dialogues are almost lost to undecipherable mumble and hiss --- their values rescued by the burnt-in English subtitles. More importantly, huge portions of the film is lost (a Filipino Film Review in New York lists the film as 140 minutes long, the print I saw was only 95 minutes long); some scenes are misplaced in disorderly fashion. It's quite unfortunate, really as the little bits of the film I saw (I tried to reconstruct the coherence of the narrative on my own) is enough evidence that Gerardo de Leon is the legendary filmmaker that the myths and tributes have proclaimed him to be: a visual master, probably in the league of the world's best.
The cleanest portion of the print is the pre-title sequence prelude. The portion clearly points out de Leon as a very economic director. There's not much fat or unneeded preoccupation that happens on screen. Everything that happens during the pre-title sequence is enough to ground the political agitprop that transpires thereafter. Moises Padilla (Leopoldo Salcedo) is inside a bus when he witnesses two irrational acts of harassment by the governor of Negros Occidental's secret police. The first one involves a truck carrying sacks of rice from the farmlands to the towns. The police forces the driver down his truck; punches him without any particular reason before stating that the Nacionalista have lost the gubernatorial race and that the opposing party is now reigning. The police starts shooting the sacks wherein the Nacionalista marks are printed; grains of rice falling wastefully down the muddy road (I half imagined the poor farmers to start picking the granules of rice like the villagers in Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (1954)).
The second act of harassment would involve Moises directly. A checkpoint forces all the passengers down the bus; each is frisked for unlicensed firearms and contraband (post-war Negros is littered with Communist rebels, thus, the checkpoints and the rationale for harassments and arrests). An old man is arrested for carrying an unlicensed gun; a woman is robbed of her money; Moises begins to compare the police's actions with that of the Japanese invaders incurring the wrath of the police. The chief of the province's police (played by former Philippine president Joseph Estrada) salvages Moises from his underlings' wrath; Moises and the police chief were comrades-in-war during the Japanese occupation.
Even before the title sequence, we get a picture of the corruption that is ensuing in Moises' province. We are also introduced to the film's two most important characters: obviously Moises, the political poster boy/martyr of the Nacionalista party who symbolized underdog politics which is equated to hope for good governance; and the police chief, who plays both villain and imperfect human counterpoint to the film's otherwise pedestaled or maligned personalities. The rest of the film recounts Moises' descent to provincial politics to his death (de Leon alludes much to religion painting Moises' death with a tinge of saintly martyrdom).
The Moises Padilla Story is colored with a film noir structure: a socially confused man spirally descends to his doom, enunciated by the typical femme fatale (the film has no real femme fatale, politics perhaps?) and the females that represent a vantage point of grace and salvation (Moises' mother and wife Auring). Moises Padilla literally writes his own death story. His preoccupation with the ongoing oppression gives him a messianic mission of salvaging his province by running for mayor --- he convinces himself that the oppression is mightier than his initial promise to not dabble in politics; he later convinces himself that his quest is of great importance to the nation that he proceeds to Manila to ask for bodyguards from the Secretary of Defense (the law provides for only one per candidate). The film details his political campaign in an episodic manner (from the initial inspirations when his friend is mugged by a power-hungry police) which coincides with the feeling that his martyrdom is pre-ordained; a revolutionary turning point in Philippine politics; that his persona is of revered importance that turns the cinematic character into a one-sided political slogan. The film is real political propaganda film and de Leon has no pretentions that it isn't. Political sides are shown blankly as good and bad; heroic and villainous (The incumbent mayor's speeches consist of black propaganda; those eating up such propaganda are depicted with ugly features, teethless vicious smiles --- literally, people you don't want to be identified with).
Joseph Estrada's character is the human component of the film. He transforms the political one-sidedness of the film into a passion play. He plays the literary Judas to Moises' Jesus Christ with one exception: Judas' betrayal is due to a difference of ideological goals with Jesus while the police chief's betrayal is simply because they are of opposing political sides that notwithstanding the war-bred friendship that they have established, there is no real assurance of loyalty. This makes the chief's torment more palpable. He is literally not a political creature but merely a man sidewinded to the governor's side of the fence --- he sees Moises being tortured and flogged for reasons that might actually be his own (the chief isn't really shown as corrupt but merely a timid --- his greatest sin might actually be the sin of apathy); the only reason he is not being tortured alongside his former companion is because he is a coward and it is most convenient to be in the victimizers' end. When he meets his fate, he is more scared for a fate he has already known (being thrown deep into the shit that it's impossible to try to get out of it); he surrenders amidst the numerous firearms facing his tortured face. Estrada captures the difficult dilemma, the moral torture, and the human imperfection of his character.
The film is of tremendous emotional power. Moises' mother visits him in his dungeon; the sight of her son defeated and weak on the cement floor of the prison cell pains the mother like no other. Then de Leon paints Moises' face with an anatomically accurate and disturbingly grotesque results of unspeakable tortures; de Leon shifts the horrible sight of Moises' face to the mother and the effect is powerful: the mother's reaction seeing his child disfigured equals the horror of seeing Moises' injured features. De Leon also makes use of the political film to stretch his directorial muscles: an action sequence involving a bar fight is edited with fiery wit and logic; comedy and romance involving Moises' wooing Auring over an afternoon picnic --- the lass replies every romantic request of Moises with an offer of gastronomical mundaneness.
The Moises Padilla Story, as seen in such a pathetic state, still draws from me great admiration for the director who would most probably be forgotten in a few decades' time; his masterpieces will be lost to humidity, ants and vinegar. I'm hoping to see the film in its complete and most watchable form, but this will do for now. Seeing The Moises Padilla Story gave me a rare mixed feeling of accomplishment (knowing that de Leon is not merely a master of mere legendary acclaim) and frustration (and nobody seems to give a damn that we're losing his cinematic legacy fast).