Alfredo Vargas as Andres Bonifacio
The pasyon of Andres
There are--and I could be perfectly wrong about this--about ten films made to date about Filipino national hero Jose Rizal, including Marilou Diaz Abaya's oversized, underpowered 150 million peso (US$3.0 million) historical epic. To date there have been--and again I can be wrong--only two films made on Filipino national hero Andres Bonifacio: Raymond Red's beautiful, strangely haunting Bayani (1992), and this.
Mario O'Hara's Ang Paglilitis ni Andres Bonifacio (The Trial of Andres Bonifacio, 2010) takes its inspiration from Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc; it employs the actual trial records as a rough outline (a film treatment, if you like) and fashions out of them an analytical, self-reflexive examination not of the truth of what happened as of the meaning of what happened (O'Hara at first glance seems to accept the historical record--always written by the victors, Emilio Aguinaldo's rival Magdalo faction in this case--as accurate).
The trial records are worth checking out by the way--not just to compare the actual accounts with the finished film, but (for those who haven't the slightest idea what I'm talking about) to read the excellent short note at the bottom of the web page explaining the trial's historical background.
How do we know O'Hara's intentions? Oh, hints, allegations, interpretations, most of them directly related to us by a narrator/commentator--Mailes Kanapi, bald and in whiteface, functioning like The Common Man in Robert Bolt's A Man for All Seasons (the original play, not the Fred Zinneman film). She adds footnotes (historical context) and postscripts (what happened afterwards); she highlights the significance of various testimonies, whether they are lying or giving the unvarnished truth. At one point, Kanapi sarcastically wonders if a witness has lost his balls; at another, she tenderly caresses a wounded soldier and praises him for his bravery in the face of suffering.
But Kanapi is the clown in the circus, using thick makeup and flashy gestures to entertain the masses; O'Hara also gives us subtler cues--the opening of many of the testimonies, for example, with the question "Are you aware of the Revolutionary Government?" Some are, some aren't; you wonder at the repetitiveness of the questions, until you realize that this is a government still struggling to establish its identity, still struggling to find out how widespread knowledge of its existence really is, still struggling, above all, to assert its authority. The trial is, among other things, an attempt to control public perception, to put a spin on matters that may have moved too fast, too far out of control. It is, in effect, an impromptu referendum on the fledgling government--a mini-snap election meant to prove that government's legitimacy.
Where O'Hara differs from Dreyer, aside from the question of money, is in his overtly theatrical style (Dreyer enjoyed a budget of seven million francs--ultimately ballooning into nine million--while O'Hara had a slightly augmented (thanks to a last-minute save by TV talk show host Boy Abunda) but still tiny budget of 1.8 million pesos (roughly thirty-nine thousand dollars)).
I don't understand the film's critics, and their complaint about the film's 'theatricality;' what do they mean? Films have been theatrical since the very beginning, from D.W. Griffith's creaky 19th century-style melodramas to Charlie Chaplin's sublime pantomimes. They have often shifted from naturalism to an actual stage: Michael Powell's The Red Shoes, Laurence Olivier's Henry V, Jean Renoir's The Golden Coach, to name a few (the Renoir, incidentally, celebrates the superiority of theater's artificiality over life's humdrum realism). They have directly translated stage plays onto the big screen in ways that are both recognizably stagebound and incontestably cinematic: Robert Altman's Secret Honor and Come to the 5 and Dime Jimmy Dean Jimmy Dean; Jonathan Demme's Swimming to Cambodia. There are even great unabashed adaptations of opera and ballet: Ingmar Bergman's delightful The Magic Flute, Carroll Ballard's The Nutcracker, to name two. Theatricality is a tool, no less valid for having its roots in an older, more venerated medium; one should judge a film as to how well it uses the tool, not condemn it for being theatrical per se.
So please--no more use of the word 'theatrical' as an insult when applied to a film; that only shows ignorance. If anything, films can use more theatricality: Mike Nichols' adaptation of Angels in America is faithful enough, but thuddingly literal-minded, complete with overfamiliar actual locations and boring digital effects. A dose of the original production's giddy theatrics (including an angel with wings the size of a private plane actually crashing through a ceiling) could have lifted the production to a higher level.
In O'Hara's case he uses the folk drama form known as the moro-moro, and those familiar with history will know that Bonifacio was at one point a moro-moro actor. Filmmaker/stage actor Dennis Marasigan points out that the moro-moro colloquially meant a predetermined outcome, in that the moro (the Muslim) will always be vanquished by the Christian hero--in other words, O'Hara in his choice of theatrical form reveals his attitude towards the veracity and integrity of the trial (as in: "don't even bother defending yourself, the verdict has long since been decided"). It's a song-and-dance number still being practiced today, in the field of public opinion, in the arena of politics ("don't even bother voting, the winner has long since been decided").
But that doesn't even get to the heart of this bewitching, bothersome, bewildering film; an alternate title for it could be The Passion of Andres Bonifacio--not just because in its record of his suffering and death there are close parallels to Christ (that cruel ending--which may put Bonifacio's courage in momentary, all-too-human doubt, but does not, ultimately, refute it--only emphasizes this) but because the film, after all is said and done, is a love story.
Oh yes--while Bonifacio's wife Gregoria de Jesus (Danielle Castano) sings the melancholy song "Jocelynang Baliwag," we have Andres Bonfacio (Alfredo Vargas) and his soon-to-be rival Emilio Aguinaldo (Lancer Raymundo) slicing open their wrists with knives and pressing them together in a blood compact. It's difficult to remember, considering how thoroughly and intensely the two leaders quarreled with each other, that they were once close allies, that Bonifacio himself may have initiated Aguinaldo into the Katipunan (the secret revolutionary society Bonifacio founded to overthrow the Spaniards), that the movement was in all probability Aguinaldo's first true love--as it remained Bonifacio's continuing and (it turns out) final one.
Every detail clicks into place, every moment suddenly makes psychological and dramatic sense when you view the film this way: Bonifacio's seething anger while incarcerated and awaiting trial (to paraphrase William Congreve: hell hath no fury like a lover scorned); Aguinaldo's passionate demands that Bonifacio be spared; Aguinaldo's heartbreakingly wordless acknowledgment that he can only do so much; and much later, Aguinaldo's elegaic fade-out into obscurity and irrelevance (think of Miss Havisham in her bridal gown and rotting wedding cake). It's the film's emotional core, its full-blooded heart, what made every hair on my arms and neck stand while watching the picture. It's why I think the film--along with its historical accuracy, its metaphysical tricks, its cinematic fireworks (done on a shoestring budget), its, yes, theatricality--is great: this is O'Hara's Valentine to a hero long ignored.
Need I say it? Best of the year, of several years.