Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Reviewing Mark Meily's 'El Presidente'

El Presidente rises (and falls)

by rick olivares

This is a case of art imitating life.

Emilio Aguinaldo could very well be the father of the republic yet the film, like its subject, rises and doesn’t reach the summit.

I went to see El Presidente on the last day of the old year filled with equal parts excitement and trepidation. I have always been a fan of period pieces so I wasn’t going to miss this.

I have to admit that I do not really watch local films but being a history buff myself and one with a fascination for the revolutionary wars, I had to see this film so that’s the part about my excitement.

The trepidation part is because I hoped that they would get it right and not fall into what I think are the pitfalls of Philippine cinema – a tendency for the actors to overact and to do so much.

After watching the film, I can say that my fears were well founded as El Presidente has its hits but also has its misses.

The movie begins with Emilio Aguinaldo’s capture by the American forces in Palanan, Isabela. And from there the film unfolds in a series of flashbacks.

The film started out with the feel of Edward Zick’s ‘Glory’ the depiction of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry regiment during the US Civil War (love the color grading to give it the feel of a historical documentary film). Like ‘Glory’, ‘El Presidente’ features sweeping battlefield scenes and great attention to detail. However, ‘El Presidente’ would have been better served had it gone the route of ‘Glory’ where there was a less tendency to over-aggrandize the action.

I dislike the standoff part during Aguinaldo’s capture where he and one of the Macabebe scouts point a gun at one another ala some Jackie Chan/Jet Li movie. It’s a period piece let’s not have nods towards modern day action films or Hollywood-ized versions of Thermopylae.

There’s a part where Aguinaldo, sword in hand, cuts down several soldiers as if he were Leonidas in Frank Miller’s and Zack Snyder’s 300. And then there’s the Chan/Li action standoff. Uh. No. It doesn’t work.

In the film, Aguinaldo’s messenger Cecilio Segismundo was caught on a mission to send out a letter for reinforcements. Segismundo brings along his son who is ill and in an act of desperation, steals medicines from an American encampment and is caught. Let me digress for a moment, would any army general (Aguinaldo) send out his messenger with his son knowing there are American soldiers and spies everywhere?

Back to the film, this is where the story diverges. Aguinaldo, in his memoirs, claim that Segismundo was tortured and thus gave up his whereabouts.

The Americans claim otherwise and Segismundo gave them up willingly as he was war weary. Prior to Funston’s daring raid Segismundo surrendered to him in Nueva Ecija. Personally, I tend to believe the latter as Segismundo took part in the raid that captured Aguinaldo. Even former officer, Tal Placido, who knew Aguinaldo personally was a part of the raiding party. For me that meant that they had turned. They only had five American soldiers with them and all – including Funston – were officers. There were over 70 Macabebe scouts in the party and I do not believe for one minute that they were not doing this of their own volition as could have very well just sent Funston and his fellow officers to their deaths or turned them over to Aguinaldo. They turned plain and simple maybe believing the they were just delaying the inevitable – the fall of Aguinaldo’s shadowy cabinet and government in hiding.

The capture of Aguinaldo did not involve much action. After receiving Placido and other Macabebe officers, there was some shooting outside. There was nothing about some officer not being able to speak Spanish or some sort. Aguinaldo thought it was more of a salute until he had the guns pointed at him. Two of his guards were killed with one officer severely injured. As for Aguinaldo, upon the prodding of Felipe Buencamino, he surrendered.

I felt bad watching the creative license taken where Aguinaldo shot and killed a few of the raiding party.

As for the deaths of Andres Bonifacio and Antonio Luna, I’ll skip the part where they’re supposed to have engaged in certain atrocities the movie claims. On the other hand, the film ‘exonerates’ Aguinaldo of the culpability in their murders showing that it was his generals who prodded him to sign the order of their execution or whatever.

Remember, one reason why Aguinaldo was elected president was because of his string of victories in Cavite while Bonifacio’s troops oft lost. Now what I find lacking in the film is how it was not mentioned that with the loss of Luna, the Philippine Army disintegrated as Aguinaldo himself lost a series of battles before he decided to wage guerilla warfare. Even the Americans acknowledged that Luna was the lone genius in the Philippine Army.

It is the same with Gregorio del Pilar’s death up in lonely Tirad Pass. His loss hurt Aguinaldo and was a blow to the morale of the remaining Philippine units. This is not even portrayed or even mentioned.

The flight of Aguinaldo in the film should have taken on a more urgent tone. He was dogged by the Americans every step of the way hence the rear guard action by Del Pilar’s troops. Aguinaldo’s flight was a big thing for both the Filipinos and Americans. It was even widely reported in the American press about El Presidente’s capture.

I guess that’s the problem with trying to do so much in so little a time. Even with a long film it will still work.

Aguinaldo’s life can be divided into three parts --- the war against Spain, the war against the Americans and his retired life. The film, in my opinion, should have just featured the first two with the last part being mentioned on text ala the end of ‘Glory’ following the tragic end of the 54th.

And so there were parts that were totally unnecessary such as the Inang Bayan scenes (that could have worked but looked silly in the end as Aguinaldo lay in his death bed) as well as inclusion of Nora Aunor in the film as his second wife who really does nothing for the film but lovey dovey eyes for Aguinaldo. It comes across as using star power to attract moviegoers to this film.

The same too with Cesar Montano who I like as an actor but he is miscast as Bonifacio. Montano looks far too good looking and eloquent for Bonifacio who wasn’t exactly educated.

Baron Geisler reprises his role in ‘Baler’, another Meily period piece where he gives the epic stand of a Spanish garrison inside the church the James Cameron Titanic treatment (a real event against the backdrop of a love story), as a Spanish officer albeit a more brutal one. There is no difference. You can insert Geisler’s on-the-edge Capt. Enrique de las Morenas in ‘Baler’ with his brutal officer’s role in ‘El Presidente’. Will we see a third? Maybe Geisler would have done well to watch sociopathic Jason Isaacs in the role of Col. Tavington in the wretched period piece ‘The Patriot’ (starring Mel Gibson). But then again, had Geisler done so, he might have stolen the spotlight from Jeorge ‘ER’ Estregan’s portrayal of Aguinaldo that are at times stirring and convincing.

The nascent Philippine Army during the Cavite uprising was woefully ill equipped and Aguinaldo’s leadership and derring-do was crucial at this time as they held off the Spanish Army. Estregan does this well with his regal presence in the film.

And oh, I love the battle scenes. Short though they were.

‘El Presidente’ maybe should have started with the restoration of the actual date of Philippine independence rather than his capture by Funston because in the last 15 minutes or so, the film begins to drag as we go through a collage of his life from his retirement to his failed run at the Philippine presidency to his eventual last hours.

Maybe even it should have started out from the Philippine Centennial with all the events that were done at his home in Kawit, Cavite.

I know that Mark Meily tried to be as accurate as possible with his depiction of Aguinaldo and the events surrounding him. And thus, I salute his attempts to rekindle an interest in Philippine history that is rich and a largely unexplored goldmine because of this fascination with unrequited love stories in Philippine cinema. But the faults kept me from thoroughly enjoying the film. Of course, I understand creative license.

Nevertheless this is a step up from the usual Pinoy cinema fare. I salute the film as it does make bold statements and the production is good even with its misses. Maybe the third (period piece in what is looking like a colonial history trilogy by Meily) time will be the charm.

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