Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Moises Padilla Story (Gerardo de Leon, 1961)

Thanks to the website Video 48 for the photographs

Alas it's been too long since I've seen Lilet to write an article, have no copy at hand to refresh my memory, and the only screening of the film was at the following venue, in a year-long retrospective celebration of Gerardo De Leon's centennial.  

Instead, here's a reprint of an old and brief piece I did about one of his very best works, and the first film to screen at the retrospective:

The passion of the Christ figure

Gerardo De Leon’s The Moises Padilla Story--about an aspiring Negros Occidental mayoral candidate (Leopoldo Salcedo) tortured and killed during election season (a hazard common in Philippine politics, with the violence continuing in Negros even today)--was an unabashed quickie propaganda flick said to have been made on behalf of President Carlos P. Garcia for his re-election run (didn't work--he lost to Diosdado Macapagal). One man’s propaganda, though, may be another’s cinematic near-masterpiece; De Leon’s vivid direction--plus the film’s bullet momentum and intense acting--manages to land this one near the top of his considerable oeuvre.

De Leon keeps a firm rein on Salcedo’s tendency to act larger-than-life; his Padilla is a recognizable human being, vulnerable and charming. The filmmaker turns Salcedo’s rugged handsomeness (not for nothing was he nicknamed The Great Profile) into a heroic icon, and understands that icons achieve full nobility, full grandeur when desecrated--when they are spattered in their own blood. De Leon spatters plenty in Moises: the beating and whipping of Padilla may well be the longest, most intense torture sequence ever put into a Filipino film, a thirteen-stationed Passion of the Christ with (if anything) even worse mutilations and sadism, redeemed by the cool, distant, faintly Fordian beauty of De Leon's visual style.

Padilla may be the Christ figure, but the film's truly interesting performance belongs to its Judas, its Bob Ford--to former Philippine President Joseph Ejercito Estrada, who is both chief of the local police and Padilla’s best friend, and who is ordered to both capture Padilla and supervise his extensive and ultimately fatal excruciation. Estrada--who never quite impressed me as an actor--delivers here with a brooding intensity worthy of James Dean, and injects the pretty much straightforward narrative with a rich dose of anguished ambivalence that elevates the film above similar exercises of sadism (i.e. Gibson's aforementioned snuff flick). At a certain point it's actually impossible to determine who suffers more, the man being tortured or the man inflicting the torture; when by film's end he is cornered, Estrada actually looks relieved to have been caught.

It’s an elaborate and ironic joke on actor, film, and filmmaker: a scandalous killing practically ended Estrada’s career way back when; no producer would touch him, until De Leon asked for him in Moises Padilla with only one condition--that Estrada play the villain. The former president comes through with a performance of uncharacteristic complexity and sensitivity bordering on the miraculous; if only he could have reprised the role for his real-life Presidency...

Meantime we have this, an astonishingly eloquent film despite its strictly practical origins, sadly as mutilated and grievously lacerated as its eponymous hero. Are we to play silent Judas to Philippine cinema's Moises Padilla, standing by in impotence as time eats mercilessly away at its masterworks? Should we?

Reprinted and expanded from its original published version on Businessworld, 2.25.00

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