Jose Rizal (Marilou Diaz-Abaya, 1998)
Coinciding with the centennial celebration of Philippine independence from Spain, Jose Rizal was during its time the most expensive Philippine film made (Erik Matti's Exodus: Tales From the Enchanted Kingdom (2005) overtook it by a few millions of pesos). Behind the project are notable figures in Philippine cinema: screenwriter Ricky Lee (who co-wrote the screenplay with Jun Lana and Peter Ong Lim) is one of the country' most respected (although hardly consistent in his works) screenwriters; director Marilou Diaz-Abaya has a few films (Brutal (1980), Moral (1982) and Karnal (Carnal, 1983)) that have been regarded as masterpieces; Rody Lacap lensed some of the most beautiful Philippine films ever made (including Mike de Leon's Itim (The Rites of May, 1976) and Kisapmata (Blink of an Eye, 1982), and Peque Gallaga's Oro, Plata, Mata (Gold, Silver, Death, 1982)). This biopic of the country's national hero may be described as a collective work by the cinematic elite (directors like Gallaga, Chito Rono, and Joel Lamangan, and the some of country's best actors and actresses would play various roles).
The more eccentric filmmakers made their own Rizal films, of course. There is Tikoy Aguiluz's Rizal sa Dapitan (Rizal in Dapitan, 1997), which concentrated on Rizal's exile in the provincial barrio. There is Mike de Leon's Bayaning Third World (Third World Hero, 2000), which is an intriguing look into the mysteries that surround the hero. Mario O'Hara's low-budget Sisa (1999) is proclaimed by critic Noel Vera as probably the best Rizal film ever made (it's quite unfortunate that a copy of the film is nowhere to be found commercially). Of course, Gerry de Leon also has adapted Rizal's two novels (Noli me Tangere (1961) and El Filibusterismo (1962)). However, these films were more concentrated art forms, nowhere near the expansive and all-encompassing nature of Diaz-Abaya's ambitious epic.
The ambition and the pedigree doesn't quite match the results. Jose Rizal is a three-hour, short for bloated, lesson in Philippine history. Everything that can be gleaned from the film can be achieved with much more accuracy and probably, with more of the interesting bits and details on Rizal's more devious escapades, from textbooks with none of the uninteresting tastefulness that is attributed to Rizal's sanctification. It is glossy from the start; and it begins with operatic fashion and exaggeration: a naked woman, with her breasts in proud display, is bedded by a hedonistic Spanish priest. It opens with an announcement of the state of affairs during the Spanish regime. The rest of the film is fashioned the same way, as hundreds of recruited extras (both Filipino and Caucasian) recite lines on cue while the more prominent actors are given the lines that are pumped up with historical pomp and nationalistic self-importance.
The film is structured in a way that is uncharacteristic for a film that targets the Philippine masses as its audience. Although narratively straightforward, Jose Rizal is complexed by flashbacks, short allusions to Rizal's novels, fastforwards, and other narrative conceits. The result is ultimately confusing and without any background on the important events in Rizal's life, it would be very easy to get lost. The flashbacks are initiated by Rizal's two confidantes: the first one is a young prison servant (Jhong Hilario), to whom Rizal recounts his growing-up years; the more prominent one is Taviel (Jaime Fabregas), Rizal's defense counsel who slowly befriends the hero while postulating several questions regarding his motives.
Rizal is played by Cesar Montano with obvious reverence to the national hero. Lines are delivered with gospel-like fervor. The more silent and contemplative moments will have Montano daze thoughtfully into space, hoping to elicit some sort of solemn grandeur. While Montano succeeds in depicting the hero as should be done in this type of biopic, there is no question that he is upstaged by more seasoned thespians who are more creative in maximizing the meager roles that are written for them. Fabregas transforms his Taviel from mere attorney into a friend with believable ease and tenderness. Joel Torre , who plays Chrisostomo Ibarra, the main character in Rizal's novel, is both tragic and fearsome. Pen Medina plays Paciano, Rizal's elder brother, with adequate conviction. Sadly, the film is inconsistent in the acting department: Gardo Verzosa's Andres Bonifacio is an unconvincing romantic wreck, written as a cardboard cutout of blind idolatry, although the brash hero is more independent-thinking in real life; Gloria Diaz's Teodora Alonzo, Rizal's mother, falters with her miscarriage of melodramatic quips and mannerisms.
The problem with Jose Rizal is that it concentrates on historical accuracy rather than artistic contribution. The film, as mentioned, is basically a history book adapted to film. I am unable to discern any individual offering by the artists involved in the endeavor. Diaz-Abaya has made some good films that showcase her personality as a director. Lee was more interesting when he was writing under the threat of imprisonment. Lacap works better with less budget since the visuals here are too glossily perfect for my taste. It takes the nature of a commissioned work, without the gusto that could have injected some sort of discernible personality to the film. The film will satisfy the academe, or those who seek to learn the life of Rizal in a matter of three hours but that's basically it. Squeeze it for what it's worth, and all you'll get are a few glamorized phrases that show little of who what the Philippines is as a nation, what we have become with Rizal as national hero, and the hero's lasting contribution to the Philippine psyche.
This post is my contribution to This Savage Art: The Ambitious Failure Blog-A-Thon.