Friday, February 07, 2014

El Filibusterismo (Gerardo de Leon, 1962)

Thanks to Video 48 for the image

Belatedly: The ongoing yearlong Gerardo de Leon Centennial is screening El Filibusterismo--easily one of his best works--at the CCP Little Theater, on Feb. 8 at 4 pm.

Posted is an early piece I did on the film. 

A dark masterpiece

El Filibusterismo (The Filibuster) is one of two of Jose Rizal's major novels, Rizal being (to the Philippines anyway) a combination of Benjamin Franklin and Abraham Lincoln--a founding intellectual of the country as well as its single most beloved historical figure (which has its good and bad points...but that’s a whole other article right there). El Filibusterismo is to Philippine history what Les Miserables or Huckleberry Finn would be to…well, not completely true: Les Miserables and Huckleberry Finn are masterpieces of world literature, and not many would claim as much for El Fili (our fond nickname for the novel).

El Fili and its companion piece, Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not), did, however, inspire a nationalist movement, and the death of their author did inspire a nationwide revolt--one which ultimately led to what is generally considered the first-ever democratic republic in Asia. I doubt if Les Miz or Huck Finn could boast of as much direct influence in their respective countries’ histories, classic literary status notwithstanding.

But it’s not just the historical importance--emotionally and culturally the two novels are still very much alive to some 75 million or so Filipinos. It and Noli are required reading in high school; more, every other high school in the country is named after the author (not to mention every other street, drive or avenue--if not after Rizal, then after characters in his novels: Maria Clara Drive; Simoun Street; Dona Victorina Avenue…).

It’s unfortunate that Rizal was too spread out, too involved in concerns personal, political, commercial, and scientific to pour his considerable energies into making the novels more artful. Mind you, they are genuine novels, in the classic sense of the term--the characters develop over the course of the narrative, the prose (in the English or Filipino translations, anyway--have not read them in the original 19th-century Spanish) is florid but occasionally eloquent, and full of sharp, satirical observations. But they can't be considered groundbreaking or even outstanding examples of Victorian fiction--El Fili, for one, is obviously indebted to Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo without, unfortunately, inheriting that book's drive and genius for colorful detail (of course Rizal had other things in mind besides writing 'entertainment'). And Simoun may be a fascinatingly shadowy figure but pales in comparison to Dumas' Count, whose thirst for vengeance burned him deep into our collective consciousness.

This, I think, is where the film versions come in.

Officially there is no existing print left of El Fili. Rumor has it that one exists in some lab in Germany--but no further news has been heard since. I managed to catch the film on Viva Channel years ago, in what appears to be a poor video recording of a faded print, with almost none of the dialogue discernible (the cable channel no longer exists, and I have no idea what has happened to their copy). In a way, it was like watching a silent film adaptation of a literary classic.

And it works; the plot is complex, but all you need to know can be learned from the images onscreen. Proud white mestizos hover high and haughty over dark-complexioned indios; heroes Basilio, Isagani, Kabesang Tales--indios with rare courage and intelligence--defy civil and church authority. And behind all loom the shadowy figure of Simoun: jeweler, master manipulator, representative of all that is black and bitter within Rizal himself.

There are the interludes between Basilio and his beloved Juli, who meet by a tree on a high seaside cliff, a striking location composed of tree and cliff, sea and sky. But a pair of twisted crucifixes stand silent nearby, the graves of Juli's parents, and add a note of foreboding to their courtship.

There is the subplot of a priest and a town official conspiring to rob Kabesang Tales, the farmer. When Tales finally picks up a rifle to pursue the two villains, De Leon shoots all three in extreme long shot, running like ants through a vast landscape--an image not unworthy of Erich Von Stroheim's Death Valley sequence in Greed.

Many of these sequences are not in the novel--Rizal mentions Basilio and Juli’s lovemaking only in passing, while the death of priest and politician is suggested by a pair of dead bodies found the morning after. By actually filming the events De Leon pushes Rizal’s political and social agenda into the background (where I for one would say it belongs), and brings to fore the characters' everyday struggles, their essential humanity.

Actually, Rizal had many intentions for his two novels--they were to serve as a panoramic assessment of Philippine society; a clarion call for reform; a scathing critique of the Filipino character as a whole. Ibarra/Simoun was meant to represent the fresh idealist turned soured revolutionary; Basilio was his younger, lower-class self; Padre Salvi, Dona Victorina, Cabesang Tales, Don Custodio and Ben Zayb represent various strata of Philippine society as it was then (and, in many ways, still is now). Cramming in all these characters with the full weight of their significance would have sunk the picture; De Leon, however, employs a  technique filmmaker John Huston often used in adapting literary classics--when faced with characters rich in symbolism and subtext he focused on incident, dialogue and detail, trusting the story as it unfolds to reveal the characters’ full meaning.

It’s a risky gamble--Huston’s flat adaptation of Under the Volcano, or overambitious staging of Moby Dick (sunk by the miscasting of harmless Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab) shows how this style of storytelling can go wrong. But De Leon is working with (admittedly) simpler material, and in the case of El Fili the technique works remarkably well. De Leon’s classical yet dynamic sense of composition--a sense that owes something to John Ford, Sergei Eisenstein, Akira Kurosawa--and clean storytelling style pares away much of the novel's dense underbrush, turning it into the intense drama of vengeance it always wanted to be.

Then there's De Leon’s conception of Simoun the jeweler, “The Brown Cardinal”--tall and silent, wearing dark cloaks and even darker spectacles. Simoun is the Gothic figure Francis Coppola probably wanted from Gary Oldman in Dracula but failed to get (perhaps because Coppola surrounded Oldman with so much extraneous silliness). De Leon keeps it simple, and his Simoun is truly menacing--rarely speaking or smiling, always standing in one corner of a shot, always peering at unfolding events like an artist examining his handiwork, or a spider its prey. In one wonderful scene Simoun leans back on a rocking chair and addresses a row of three bandits--with his body in a pose of total languor, his eyes masked by mysterious spectacles, he nevertheless dominates the three before him.

Which is metaphorically apt; Simoun, after all, is the figure behind all the machinations that drive El Fili--its heart of darkness, so to speak. Where in Noli Rizal, hoping for reform, wrote to expose the cancer eating away at Philippine colonial society, his message in El Fili is different: that the failure of reform may lead to violent revolution. He needed a hero diametrically opposed to the naïve Crisostomo Ibarra (played by the earnest Eddie del Mar) in Noli, and practicing both the principle of economic means and the principle of narrative symmetry, turned Ibarra into Simoun.

Pancho Magallona who plays Simoun gives what I consider to be one of the greatest performances in Philippine cinema. No Gregory Peck he, every moment he’s onscreen he radiates a sense of malevolent forces kept in careful check. Yet good as he is with his glasses on, with his glasses off (the rare moment recalling some awful memory, or undergoing some pang of conscience) he's even better, the eyes warm, sad, full of pain. Suddenly the monster that dominates much of the film acquires a human face and heart; suddenly, De Leon complicates the texture of Rizal’s story of revenge with the possibility of redemption--the forlorn hope that Simoun, despite his hatred, despite all the evil he has done, could somehow be turned around and saved.

One complaint I might lodge against El Fili--you don't really see De Leon cut loose here, not the way he does in the earlier Noli, when Elias runs across a phantasmagoric landscape while members of his dead family berate him for his failures. You don't see the De Leon of Sanda Wong with its hauntingly beautiful drowning scene, or endless rain of pythons summoned by a magic ring. You don’t see the De Leon of The Moises Padilla Story with its painfully extended torture sequence that visually parallels the crucifixion and death of Christ.

What you do see is an amazingly sustained piece of cinematic storytelling from one of the best filmmakers in Philippine cinema, translating to the big screen one of the most important novels in Philippine history--and, a rarity in literary adaptations, doing it well.

Though I hear Daigdig ng mga Api (The World of the Oppressed) is De Leon’s true masterpiece (the film’s prints and negatives are, tragically, lost), this one reportedly comes close. Easily the best De Leon I’ve seen to date and one of the greatest Filipino films ever made.

First published in Menzone Magazine, a Businessworld publication, May 2001

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