MMFF review: 'El Presidente'
MANILA, Philippines - First off, have to say, I love the ambition of this film. Its scale is large, its attempts are epic, and it aims to do something massive as a period film/historical biopic.
I appreciate the kind of effort that goes into making something this large, and in that sense I can’t knock it. It tried so damn hard, from costumes to production design to setting. And heck it does deliver massive battle scenes. But I felt that it could have been and should have been much, much better.
There’s a lot to be done in a film like this, especially with its running time. And I feel that it became so repetitious and unwieldy that it became an overlong history lesson.
Emilio Aguinaldo is a controversial figure in Philippine history, and depending on which side you fall on, he’s a hero or the balimbing. He’s no doubt a pillar of the revolution and an extremely interesting character. I suppose that’s the first point that I wish this movie had taken into account, among all of the different angles from which to approach this character. I know that most times when we review something, we can’t review it for what it isn’t. But given our knowledge of the subject matter, it seems fair here to expect that the film might have explored the character and given him more depth.
It’s at this lack that I guess I can make a jab at Jeorge Estregan’s portrayal of Aguinaldo. I understand his acting limitations, but heck, he could barely register any facial expressions. Aguinaldo here is a wooden character, idealized as the best leader. There’s more time spent dressing him up in different costumes, and there are so many “photo-op” moments, where at times the movie actually goes into stills, rather than any time spent exploring his character, seeing what makes him tick.
At most, there is an awkward opening sequence with an old woman’s premonition, which seems to drive his life. But I feel that doesn’t do the character justice, as if he’s just walking a path already set for him. That might be the film’s plan, but it’s a disservice to history.
Ah, but then history here is treated in two very different and problematic ways:
First off, the film is loose with its history. It draws mostly from Aguinaldo’s memoir, but that is only one perspective, and an obviously biased one at that. (This might be a chance too to consider how memoirs, autobiographies and the like might influence the rewriting of our history and national memory, and how a film such as this, with its wide scope and its ability to reach such a large readership would also influence national memory.)
Sure, every historical work is an undertaking that is inevitably colored with bias. I just feel like it would have been a deeper film if it had taken the time to consider these things. And, yes, that’s me being a nitpicky critic.
Next problem is that it seems bound to a history book checklist. Rather than scenes flowing from one to the next in logical fashion, what we get is a succession of historical events. It’s like someone listed things down and then just re-enacted things. At times I felt transported back to high school, with people re-enacting and trying to emulate or imagine how these events might have gone down.
Sure, they had lots of production value to execute these; but still, rather than feel like we were following a clear narrative arc, we were watching re-enactments. As a result, the storytelling is lacking. Rather than clear movement and one event driving to the next, what we might get is a scene where a bunch of guys sit at a table and talk. They spew out a bunch of expository dialogue.
Then there’s a battle scene in reaction to that dialogue. After the battle scene we’ll get another with dudes at a table spewing expository dialogue. And then another battle scene. And so on. There are some other scenes snuck in, but a large part of the flick operates thus.
Now, I’m not knocking the battle scenes. These were directed and photographed beautifully, and with great flair. There’s an intensity to them that I love. But then they got too repetitious, and I could not get a sense of escalation, a sense of how these were contributing to the overall war effort. Suffice to say that in individual scenes you got a lot of brilliance, but the bigger picture seemed lacking.
I can’t not talk about casting. I know, I know. In the context of say, Asiong Salonga where you had to cast an actor almost twice his age, there might have been ways of explaining it away since Salonga is a cult picture and that film was stylized.
The decision to cast Estregan to play a man who became President at 28 is more of a problem. It’s not just the individual casting, with not only the age discrepancy and the lack of acting chops. In response to that choice, other major movers in the revolution are played by actors who are also older.
What this does is it changes the way that one might imagine the revolution. The film makes it seem like the Philippine Revolution was an old man’s movement, when in actuality it was driven by people in their late 20s and early 30s. I find the youth of the revolution to be a particularly inspiring aspect of it, and to re-imagine it thus feels like a betrayal of history.
That being said, I thought that the performances of both Cesar Montano and Christopher de Leon were great. Montano brought gravity and power to his portrayal of Bonifacio. And de Leon’s over-the-top crazy for Luna was a scene-stealer.
The problem too is that without a clear narrative frame to the film (because as mentioned earlier, it just goes with a history checklist), it doesn’t seem to know where to end. There are multiple endings.
For example, there’s a scene where we watch Aguinaldo going through a seizure. What it does for the narrative, I don’t know. It has him writhing and suffering for what seems a full minute. But it ain’t over yet. We get some more scenes around it that feel like any of them could have been endings (god, dude, just let him wave the flag and leave on that image!).
And so we have this prolonged denouement that takes over the last 10 minutes or so of the film. Also a heavy-handed apparition who provides a cheesy end interpretation.
El Presidente is flawed. Individual scenes and sequences can be gripping, but the overall film suffers from sprawl and lack of a narrative drive.
But again, it’s the most ambitious film of the 38th Metro Manila Film Festival, and if only for that it’s worth a watch. It does a lot of things right, and it is commendable on a lot of technical aspects. It’s just that these flaws hinder so much of the film that it’s disappointing.
I wanted to go in and love this film, but instead, I found that in the last half hour I just kept hoping it would finally end.
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(Carljoe Javier teaches at the UP Department of English and Comparative Literature. He has written a few books, most recently the new edition of The Kobayashi Maru of Love available from Visprint Inc. and the upcoming Writing 30 available as an ebook at amazon, ibookstore, b&n and flipreads.com.)