The Reviews Are In: “Heneral Luna” Rules

John Arcilla as General Antonio Luna

John Arcilla as General Antonio Luna

An Unusual, Timely Filipino Film

By Thelma E. Estrada

Heneral Luna, a film by young Filipino indie filmmaker Jerrold Tarog, which was recently shown in San Francisco is that rare Filipino movie that is based on Philippine history. It is not the usual staple of Filipino moviegoers who live on romantic dramas and comedy films. This could explain why the movie took almost 18 years to make -- the major movie studios were not interested in producing such a film since they did not think the Filipino viewing public would go see it. It’s the perennial dilemma of purveyors of popular culture: Give the masses what they want, or give them something to chew on. Frothy dishes like “The Love Affair,” currently breaking box office records, or meatier fare such as “Heneral Luna”?

The movie is set in the year 1898 when the Philippine revolutionaries had just won against the Spanish forces and broken the 300-year-old Spanish rule. Unbeknownst to the Filipino revolutionaries, Spain and the United States were working a side deal, with the defeated Spaniards selling the Philippines to the United States. This was the period of the rise of American imperialism; the Americans have come to supplant the Spanish rulers. Antonio Luna was the best schooled general of the revolutionary army. The movie focuses on the division within the revolutionary government led by President Emilio Aguinaldo.

The cabinet of President Aguinaldo is divided on whether to continue to resist and fight the new colonizers or to make peace with them in the hope of winning concessions. Heneral Luna urges resistance, denouncing those who advocate for peace with the Americans as traitors. President Aguinaldo appears uncertain as to which road to take. Heneral Luna continues to lead his army into battles with the American forces.

It’s the perennial dilemma of purveyors of popular culture: Give the masses what they want, or give them something to chew on.

Filipino actor John Arcilla portrays Luna, complemented by a solid supporting cast. Arcilla is atypical of the Filipino leading man. He is short, brown and stocky. He depicts Luna as short-tempered and rash, contemptuous of those who do not agree with him. This contempt earns Luna the hatred of some members of the Aguinaldo cabinet, who subsequently plot to persuade Aguinaldo that Luna has designs on the presidency.

There is an attempt to show other layers of Luna the man: Luna having a tryst with a lover (although the lines spoken during this scene evoked snickers from the audience (“I do not need this drink; I thirst for you.”); Luna playing the guitar, Luna doting on his mother. There are some humorous scenes: Another general who refuses to follow Luna’s order states that the only way he would leave the town fiesta and bring his troops to the front would be in a coffin. Luna comes to the town and confronts the general with a coffin in tow.

The characterization of Aguinaldo is a little bit thin. It would have been interesting to understand what motivated the first president of the Philippine Republic. Was it pure self-interest or a political calculation? Other important characters of the Philippine revolution are also not fully drawn: Mabini, shown in his wheel chair beside President Aguinaldo, is oddly silent during the internal debates within the cabinet.

The scenes are not lavishly imagined; the acting veers towards the melodramatic and the dialogue is a little stilted. The best asset of this historical drama is its subject matter. This is the story of the Filipino nation at its founding. Because of colonization and miseducation, many Filipinos are not aware of their own story. Who are we as a nation? What are our leaders’ strengths and flaws? To know more about Heneral Luna and the government of President Aguinaldo is to know more about ourselves.

Some members of the audience in the San Francisco screening lamented that Filipinos seem to be doomed as a nation by internal division and infighting. However, this trait is not endemic to Filipinos. What makes a democracy work is not perfect leaders. What makes a democracy vibrant is to have an educated, engaged citizenry who will select leaders based on their qualities and vision for the country, not based on regional loyalties, or a popular name or image. More importantly, democracy requires vigilance from the citizens who must continue to hold their leaders accountable even after the elections are long forgotten.

John Arcilla (second from left) as General Antonio Luna with Art Acuña, Joem Bascon and Alex Vincent Medina in this scene from "Heneral Luna."

John Arcilla (second from left) as General Antonio Luna with Art Acuña, Joem Bascon and Alex Vincent Medina in this scene from "Heneral Luna."

A Great Jolt, Despite a Few Quibbles

By Renato L. Santos

Audiences who have flocked to see it are jolted by “Heneral Luna,” the movie about Antonio Luna, who was betrayed and assassinated by a cabal that aborted the unfinished revolt against Spain and delivered the country to American colonial rule.

Showing the film today as next year’s national election looms makes political skullduggery more graphic, ever relevant to us, its victims. In disgust we are led to reexamine the stubborn ills that plague our system—the hypocrisy of politicians, an educational system ignorant of history and blind to being Filipino, a church that stunts and kills the soul with ritual and worldly entitlement, and remorselessness in our toxic lack of nationhood. After the movie, we sigh in disillusion and beat our breast.

That there’s much to discuss, feel guilty and angry about is testament to the film’s cogent delivery of its content. The director’s firm control over all aspects showed complete mastery of his craft. The screenplay, co-written by producer E. A. Rocha and director Jerrold Tarog, stuns with coherence hardly found in Filipino movies today. Its writers navigate judiciously through the facts of Luna’s biography, making key events illuminate his rise and fall.

All performers excel, especially John Arcilla in his delivery of the quintessential lion in Luna. Mylene Dizon as Isabel, Luna’s lover is regal and luminous against machismo’s dark side.

But as light sometimes reveals dark corners, a few unsettling issues rise. The Tagalog used is spare and direct, with clipped syntax, unlike conversational Filipino’s wordy indirection. The dialogue seems somber, studied rather than spontaneous, often aphoristic, ponderous to the point of being self-conscious. It moves at a slow, perhaps intended, stately pace—a sarabande rather than graceful balitaw.

That there’s much to discuss, feel guilty and angry about is testament to the film’s cogent delivery of its content

As mentioned in its prologue, the film is “fiction based on fact.” Being so, would that not make it “revisionist?” When separating fact from fiction becomes difficult (as indeed quite a few in the audience remarked) wouldn’t such revision (whether “illuminative” or “tendentious”) become patent advocacy?

Nationhood, of course, is worth advocating at any time. Oh, how we curse its lack when caught in EDSA’s gridlock daily! But “Nationhood,” is the product of an existential process. Isn’t it gained through active suffering rather than advocacy?

This is not to disparage the value of pricking lax consciences, but to say further that disillusion due to stubborn cracks in national character is neither new nor peculiar to us, broadens our perspective, tempering perhaps the millenarian (and hopefully, what’s ningas-cogon [flashfire]) within us.

Shakespeare said it too: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves that we are underlings.” To harbor such disillusion is part of the human condition. Old as time itself.

It may be a matter of taste, but allowing subtext to rise out of narrative rather than repeated mention makes for an artful film—more subtle, less intrusive or didactic. There’s the difference between learning and being preached at.

Does advocacy, one may ask, disparage Art? Throughout history, Art was used to advance political intent. Did the Roman Popes, when commissioning Bernini to create baroque masterpieces have in mind the tactic of dazzling the dourness out of Luther’s Reformation? To wonder is to beg the question.

Spoliarium, Juan Luna’s magnum opus was an allegory of colonial oppression. The painting’s success in the salons of Europe was a great boon to the Propaganda Movement against Spain.

Great Art will survive. Outlasting its context, the circumstances that surrounded its creation will be proved to be finite.

Despite changing tastes and aesthetic, Art will generate interest and challenge future generations to decide on a work’s greatness. To be timeless, “Heneral Luna,” shorn of current applause, must stand on the merits of its artistry. In the end, like mother’s milk, Art transcends the circumstance of birth—to nourish always the greatness we are heir to.