Jerrold Tarog's Heneral Luna caps if you like the decades-plus quest of Filipino filmmakers to retell the Philippine Revolution and its direct aftermath the Philippine-American War, told in two distinct styles, from the more traditional Gone With the Wind-type epic storytelling (Marilou Diaz-Abaya's Jose Rizal, Mark Meily's El Presidente) to more eclectic independent efforts (Raymond Red's extended poems Bayani (Hero) and Sakay; Tikoy Aguiluz's cinema-verite Rizal sa Dapitan (Rizal in Dapitan); Mike de Leon's Magritte-ish essay film Bayaning Third World (Third World Hero); Mario O'Hara's speculative fantasy Sisa, and Dreyer-like courtroom drama Ang Paglilitis ni Andres Bonifacio (The Trial of Andres Bonifacio).
Tarog's film falls somewhere between, covering the last year or so of the life of General Antonio Luna (John Arcilla) while touching on that life's highlights: the Battle of Santo Tomas, where Luna charged the enemy and was shot off his horse; the Battle of Calumpit, where he waged a heated word war with the defiant General Tomas Mascardo (Lorenz Martinez); and the various political skirmishes Luna was forced to fight to present his strategies to his respected--if suspiciously distant--commander, President Emilio Aguinaldo (Mon Confiado).
Tarog acquits himself in the battles well enough, his stated model (not to mention the source of a few of his camera moves) being the trench warfare sequences in Kubrick's Paths of Glory--though his most memorable moment is inspired by D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, where Luna charges the American troops all by himself, his soldiers forced to belatedly attack from the sheer shock of surprise (plus the need to keep their superior officer from getting thoroughly killed). It's the infighting, however, that brings out the cross-cutter in Tarog (who started out as composer production designer and editor before trying his hand at directing): in a series of intensely delivered monologues spliced into each other at an accelerating pace, Tarog depicts the rancorous exchange between Luna and Mascardo; when Felipe Buencamino (Nonie Buencamino) starts a whispering campaign against Luna in Aguinaldo's ear, Tarog crisscrosses their scenes with Luna alone in his room playing a moody guitar; the melody darkens as the implications of Buencamino's insinuations darken, his accusations ever more serious (he claims for one that Luna seeks to establish his own dictatorship).
That's Luna the Pattonlike maverick; for Luna the man his mother Laureana (a fiery Bing Pimentel) walks him through his memories--the camera pushing past the pair into the painting of a flower vase, the picture frame in turn pulling apart to reveal the Luna household of his childhood (as Tarog admits, the single most difficult shot in the film). You think of Ophuls and his waltzlike long takes; the theatrical audacity makes you wonder if perhaps Tarog had once worked in Philippine theater or some similar venue dealing in spatial continuity as opposed to cojoined imagery (the realm of the veteran film editor). You can't help but feel that the production has attempted to leap a little distance beyond what most Hollywood biopics would dare nowadays at the risk of embarrassing themselves, and largely succeeded.
The script (by E.A. Rocha and Henry Hunt Francia, later rewritten by Tarog) is considerably less audacious, outlining Luna's many flaws (his barely checked temper, his arrogant and abrasive manner, his inability to indulge in expedient politicking to advance his agenda) while ultimately insisting that his uncompromising courage trumps all. The story is reasonably seasoned with humor (Luna's attempt to hijack a train, his unflappable good cheer in the face of certain death) and manages to suggest some of Luna's contradictions--the observation for one that Luna seemed able to earn the respect of his military enemies far more readily than he does that of his putative allies--without (alas) presenting them in more disturbing terms, a la David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia, or Franklin J. Schaffner's previously alluded Patton.
John Arcilla goes a long way towards selling said script; his larger-than-life swagger helps bridge the gaps in psychological and historical plausibility, and his considerable charisma keeps the audience on his side even when his character is at his most violently furious (something George C. Scott managed managed to pull off on a larger scale). The legendary Luna temper unfortunately is only roughly sketched out--perhaps for context they might have included even a brief depiction (as opposed to a mere mention) of brother Juan Luna's famous affaire scandaleuse, when in a fit of jealousy he killed his wife and mother-in-law. The almost-as-legendary Luna intellect is barely hinted at--we hear that the man had a doctorate but see little of his chemical or pharmaceutical skill in action; we also hear of the Luna Defense Line but other than a few model representations (a broad box full of dirt and sticks) we barely know how the Line should work, much less what it's all about (according to Vivencio R. Jose's The Rise and Fall of Antonio Luna, an elaborate series of trenches, booby-trapped with spikes and poisoned snakes, from which Filipino soldiers could cripple the American advance).
As for the rest of the cast Pimentel stands out as Luna's intimidating mother, Confiado as the chillingly ambiguous Aguinaldo, the always great Buencamino as his treacherous namesake Felipe.
Ultimately the film delivers sobering lessons for the Filipino viewer: that ability and talent are often rewarded with envy suspicion and hate; that politics is all about change yet manages to remain the same; that the Filipino's greatest enemy and most debilitating weakness may not be the invading foreigner but his own people (one is often ready for trouble from a foreigner, far less so from one's kin and kind). Not perhaps an especially uplifting message to hear but an important one to learn, if we are ever to break out of this historical cycle--this doom if you like--of endless remorseless repetitive backbiting.
Film (with subtitles in several languages) available on Netflix.
First published in Businessworld, 6.10.16