Fri 6 December 2019

On Heneral Luna: A Historico-Sociological take

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Jerrold Tarog’s latest movie, Heneral Luna, surely made a lot of buzzing and hustling for the past few weeks.  Filipinos, mostly millenials, are trooping the cinemas and in a very rare moment, applause broke out by the end of the movie. In my experience in watching cinemas, I never recalled the last time a movie was given this accolade. Perhaps its success is not just only by word-of-mouth but perhaps the quality of this movie is not found in recent contemporary films.

As a historian, I felt compelled to watch this historical biopic despite my misgivings on watching Filipino films. Not that I am biased against our own films but most mainstream films are, in my opinion, cheesy and shallow. Also, I was curious whether this film has the same or different formula of most Filipino biopic movies. Although Tarog reminds that this film is a work of fiction based on facts and creative liberty was taken, it is forgivable. After watching, I told myself that this film was refreshing and innovative. One genius of Tarog was his musical score and soundtrack fit well with the film especially Ludwig van Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata as reference to Luna’s surname – the moon. Another detail was The Spoliarium reference when Antonio Luna and Paco Roman’s dead bodies were being dragged in the church courtyard. Despite the serious tone of the film, it has its own light-hearted moments where audiences can laugh and break the tension. Archie Alemania and even John Arcilla provides the much comic relief in the film in spite of the carnage surrounding them.

Watching John Arcilla portray Antonio Luna was pure tour de force.  I did not see an actor portraying Antonio Luna but the breathing Antonio Luna himself. He captured the rugged and hot-tempered attitude of the historical Antonio Luna. In my experience teaching Philippine history, most of my students always view our heroes as superheroeswithgodly attributes. In Heneral Luna, Arcilla portrayed Luna the human, and not only the hero. Arcilla showed the humanity of the general – his bravado, frustrations, joy, love, and pains. His popularity among moviegoers was perhaps a yearning for a Filipino with qualities that can lead our nations towards greatness. I can sense that Tarog reaching out to millenials was a success. He emotionally connected them to Luna’s character.

The other actors were also a tour de force. Clearly, Tarog took pains in capturing each of the historical figures according to their known attributes and personality. Epy Quizon’s stoic portrayal of Apolinario Mabini was spot on. The historical Mabini was regarded as the most intelligent and respected member of Aguinaldo’s government and Quizon’s acting gave justice to his character. On the other hand, Mabini’s resigned look during Antonio Luna’s funeral was a sad reflection of past and present Filipino society. This was an apparent jab on the perceived anti-intellectualism of most Filipinos and their apparent contempt by those who needed wisdom of the people such as Mabini. Mon Confiado’s portrayal of Emilio Aguinaldo was also noteworthy. Confiado’s silence and few dialogues, together with his enigmatic face, captured the historical Aguinaldo’s greatest weakness – his indecisiveness. This character flaw of Aguinaldo, along with the deaths of both Bonifacio and Luna, haunted him until his last years. His persona also captured the political immaturity, compromising, and lack of backbone of most Filipino. An example of his indecisiveness was Aguinaldo’s reluctance to affirm the arrest of both Felipe Buencamino and Pedro Paterno and he had to turn to Mabini for his decision. Sadly, most Filipino leaders are suffering from Aguinaldo’s weakness and we are feeling the brunt of their indecisiveness.

The film’s antagonists Gen. Tomas Mascardo, Felipe Buencamino, and Pedro Paterno were also portrayed spot on from their historical counterparts. Mascardo’s contempt to Luna and undying loyalty to Aguinaldo made us despise him and Pedro Paterno’s turncoat attitude make us hate him even more. The historian Resil Morajes once said that history  will never be kind to Paterno because of his despicable attitude. It is a shame that Paterno’s attitude was his undoing, which caused him to be vilified by many despite his contribution to the Propaganda Movement as a prolific literary writer. Leo Martinez’s portrayal of Paterno gave life to the historical Paterno and no one feels any sympathy to him in any way. But Nonie Buencamino’s portrayal of Buencamino is somewhat sympathetic. The actor Buencamino gave the audience a reason to connect and sympathize with his ancestor Felipe in a way that left the audience wondering if he is a victim of circumstances or a person harbouring a very dark secret. His disbelief and regret over the assassination of Luna left us feeling a bit sorry for him yet, at the same time, upset if he really wanted him dead.

Tarog’s filmmaking formula sets the trend and standards for a Filipino biopic film. While it is a work of fiction based on facts, this film did not deviate much from historical facts and remained faithful to them. Besides, there was no miscast. Tarog’s choices of actors should also serve as template for further casting. What makes this film connect with the audiences is the choice of character actors instead of the usual star-studded, top-billed cast. This probably gave Tarog artistic liberty to give a very human side of his characters that does not result in overdone lines and highfalutin dramatization. Tarog’s faith to historicism is notable despite some anachronisms such as the countryside battle scenes, costumes, and props. While he might be criticized for being gory at times, this is necessary as it gives the audiences the feeling that they are not just watching but they are in time with the film.  Filipino filmmakers – mainstream, studio, or independent – should take note of Tarog’s attention to details, cinematography, research, and scriptwriting. If our filmmakers, studios, and producers want to draw Filipino audiences more in watching Filipino films, think not of money and income but rather to treat each movie as art form. Artikulo Uno’s decision to give students 50 per cent discounts might be a financial disaster to defray the cost of the film, but it drew its target audience. The successful word-of-mouth bandwagon was the reason why audiences left the cinema not just in awe and wonder and is an effective marketing tool to draw people into the movie. Maybe it is high time we treat Filipino film as art form not just simply to generate money.

It will be a terrible injustice for me, as a historian, not to endorse and recommend this film. I am looking forward to Tarog’s other film projects, especially his planned trilogy of historical biopics. Since Heneral Luna proved to be a critical success, he should start planning the 2nd installment soon. Heneral Luna made me love historical Filipino films once again. Less frill, less razzle-dazzle, more characterization and an deep story – those are Tarog’s secrets to success.

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