Monday, July 27, 2009

Pinoy Film Focus: Jose Rizal (1998)

Director: Marilou Diaz-Abaya

Writers: Jun Lana, Ricardo Lee, Peter Ong Lim

Cast: Cesar Montano, Joel Torre, Jaime Fabregas, Gloria Diaz, Gardo Versoza, Monique Wilson, Chin Chin Gutierrez, Mickey Ferriols, Pen Medina

Runtime: 178 minutes

What was the Film Academy of the Philippines (FAP) thinking when it did not choose to send Jose Rizal as the country's contender for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 1998? It's a biopic on the national hero, who is known all around the world. The film was directed by Marilou Diaz-Abaya, a key figure in the Second Golden Age of Philippine cinema. That year was the celebration of the centennial of Philippine independence.

Above all, it is a magnificent film.

GMA Films certainly spared no expenses. The authentic costumes, dialogue, and sets, an effort so seldom seen in an industry burdened by laziness and underachievement, immerse the audience into the time of Jose Rizal's (Cesar Montano) trial by his enemies among the Spaniard colonialists. Such has been done before, with Tikoy Aguiluz's Rizal sa Dapitan and Mike de Leon's surreal Bayaning Third World being the more popular other examples, but Diaz-Abaya's film is the largest in scale. Philippine cinema is not so well known for epics, but with this film she shows that we are capable of making a spectacular, big-budgeted project that does not feel bloated, overly indulgent, or innane. Though Bayaning Third World tops Jose Rizal in terms of ambition, the latter manages to add a mesmerizing angle to the Rizal story; scenes from the national hero's novels Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo are interspersed with the natural events. In a key point in the film, there is even an overlap, and it provides one of the more intriguing perspectives on the mind of a figure almost deified in Philippine society.

Montano, now a multi-awarded actor and director, is brilliant as Rizal; it is difficult to think of a more definitive portrayal on screen. Joel Torre, heretofore the go-to man for Rizal depictions (he takes on that role in Bayaning Third World), shows in his role as Simon Ibarra, the lead character in Rizal's novels, why he is one of the most respected actors in the local industry. A characteristically powerful, controlled turn. Veteran Jaime Fabregas plays Rizal's defense lawyer, a Spaniard who learns to respect and love Rizal as a friend, and he deserves the many awards that he received for the stirring performance.

Since its release, the Philippines has not seen a film as grand and as deserving of the term as Jose Rizal. The subject matter notwithstanding, there exist in this country only a few opportunities to marry great direction and overall quality with a big budget. One hopes that when the opportunity does come, we end up with a cinematic gift as worthy of representing the country as Jose Rizal is.

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