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Date: Wed, 10 Mar 1999 03:46:49 -0500
Sender: Southeast Asia Discussion List <SEASIA-L@LIST.MSU.EDU>
From: Alex G Bardsley <bardsley@RADIX.NET>
Subject: Fwd: PH: Rizal, warts and all (Asiaweek)


A new angle on a national hero: How a warts-and-all tribute to Jose Rizal got the Philippines talking

By Ruel De Vera, Manila, Asia Week, [March 1999]

IN HINDSIGHT, IT SEEMS like a no-brainer. With the Philippines celebrating its Centennial, what could be more obvious than a blockbuster movie about independence hero Jose Rizal? Every man, woman and child in the country knows the story of the 19th-century renaissance man whose death at the hands of the Spanish military spurred Filipinos to freedom. If Manila were Hollywood, a veritable raft of star-studded epics would have been lined up. But it's not, and Jose Rizal almost did not get made.

Philippine producers seemed to fear that familiarity would breed apathy. Would moviegoers really pay to see a story they already knew by heart? And would it even make a good film? Transferring Rizal's life to celluloid is not easy. He was so cerebral. It is fine to read about him, but very difficult to put him in a movie, argues historian Ambeth Ocampo, an expert on Rizal (1861-1896). His was a life of a mind. There is not much action to keep people on the edge of their seats. There is the obligatory gun play—Rizal's death by firing squad at the age of 35—but even that comes with its own problem. How do you handle the fact that when the viewer enters the cinema, he knows that the hero will die in the end?

A dead end didn't stop Titanic, nor did it prevent newcomer GMA Network Films from bankrolling Jose Rizal with a record-breaking $2-million budget—despite the fact that historical films are often notorious flops in the Philippines. GMA's faith was rewarded. Since its Christmas release, the movie has been packing theaters and sweeping awards ceremonies. It is the most successful Philippine film of all time.

Much of the credit for this goes to the maverick approach of director Marilou Diaz-Abaya. The 43-year-old veteran of 16 films was approached when the original director and leading man walked away from the project. At first she also hesitated. It was my 19-year-old son Marco who convinced me, Diaz-Abaya says. He asked me why wouldn't I take such an opportunity? She accepted on two conditions: that she be allowed to start from scratch, and that action star Cesar Montano be cast as Rizal. Good choice. Montano, 36, surprises with a textured performance.

It's all beyond our wildest dreams, says the director. She thinks Jose Rizal will give the local industry an artistic as well as financial fillip. We wanted to challenge the way Philippine films are made, she says, arguing that audiences want original, quality work—not just copies of Hollywood hits. Jose Rizal is just one of many good films coming out now that hopefully will be the start of a new golden age for the Philippine cinema.

Sales of Rizal's novels, Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not), and El Filibusterismo (The Filibuster), have rocketed. Rizalmania is everywhere, from trivia quizzes and contests to academic symposia. Lorenzo Tan, proprietor of the Bookmark and Filipino Bookstore chains, thinks this is more than just a Centennial tie-in. For decades, our knowledge and teaching of Rizal was superficial—just names, dates and places, he says. In the film people encounter Rizal the man, the lover, the artist. He is alive again.

Not everyone is that impressed. Jose Rizal has received considerable criticism from historians. Among the more bitterly debated points are whether he actually signed a retraction of anti-clerical writings in which he denounced the Catholic Church for holding the country in political and economic paralysis. And did he ever marry long-time lover Josephine Bracken?

Diaz-Abaya pleads no contest. Without exception, the points raised against the film have remained unresolved for a century, she says. Anyway, it's just a movie. History narrates, art evokes, she says. The film is intended to go beyond the limitation of available texts. It is precisely where there are lapses or contradictions in those texts that my creative impulse takes over.

Historian Ocampo thinks Diaz-Abaya at least bettered the lousy Rizal films of the past. And the movie is reinventing a national icon for an entirely new generation of Filipinos. The movie's length (three hours) and complicated structure have proven to be obstacles for some younger viewers, but they have still found out that a man revered almost without question was human after all. Children watching a recent performance were surprised to learn that their text-book hero had bad traits as well as good ones.

The movie's real value is that it has invited Filipinos to reflect on Rizal's life in a more meaningful way. History books and historians have failed to make us fall in love with ourselves and give us a sense of pride on a national scale, Diaz-Abaya says. Jose Rizal helps fill the gap, she argues—and the academics who quibble about what may or may not have been on Rizal's mind when he was executed can go hang themselves. Her challenge: I'd like to wait five or 10 years and see whether it is my film or the contrary reviews that stand the test of time.