The lack of fanfare in relation to the movie Heneral Luna (directed by Jerrold Tarog, screenplay by Henry Hunt Francia, E.A. Rocha, and Tarrog) no media mileage, no big star like Robin Padilla carrying its flag, no Daniel Padilla on its poster, is its own power.
One enters with the intertext of Bonifacio, Ang Unang Pangulo. Within the first 10 minutes one realizes that while this film is working with the same undercurrent of history, it is in fact in a class all its own.
I do not like disclaimers. It’s like an excuse that happens before criticism, an escape before entrapment.
But Heneral Luna turns this disclaimer on its head, asserting that fictionalizing history is sometimes what we need to do to arrive at the more important truths about nation. One can’t help but be iffy about that—the dominant truths about nation after all are always controlled by the powers-that-be, the ones sitting in Malacañang, the ones appointed to the embattled National Historical Commission of the Philippines.
Ah, but this movie surprises yet again: it has its heart in the right place, standing for the truths about nation that are painful to hear, but which are critical to where we are at this historical juncture, and what it is that we must do for nation.
One would think this means we’re getting a film with long preachy sermons about what’s right and wrong, about Philippine identity, about the stuff we are made of as a people.
There is none of that in Heneral Luna.
The wonder of Luna, Arcilla
The little we know of Antonio Luna is as much about our apathy to history, as it is about an educational system that has yet to work into its program the study of historical personalities beyond heroism and beyond being perfect individuals. But also, if this film is any indication, the little we know of Heneral Luna might be about our inability as a nation to accept heroism to come in various forms.
It can even come from someone who does not think twice about drawing a gun and threatening another’s life with it. But this is also what works for this film: the balance that it achieves between the craziness that a love for nation provokes, and the seriousness with which serving nation is discussed.
Critical to the success of this character is John Arcilla, he whose Luna is a study in stability—no mean feat when one considers that this characterizatio does not paint the General as conventional hero, and instead brings into his narrative a layer of lunacy.
Only Arcilla would be able to achieve this balance, and then have the ability to play around with it. Where the temper and anger, the laughter and irreverence, are all bound to this one person’s devotion to nation. That what resonates about this Luna is his commitment to national sovereignty, and his belief in the Filipinos’ ability to fight for it, is all because of Arcilla.
With him as Luna, the crazy laughter and holding a wayward captain by the balls, letting a brother stay in jail and calling everyone a traitor to their faces, are but eccentricities that make Luna more human. That the only public moment between Luna and his ladylove Isabel (Mylene Dizon) succeeds is also because of Arcilla, who is able to play up that moment of hesitation, brief as it was, and make it beautiful.
The greatness of storytelling
Making the hero human is a major feat of Heneral Luna. Which can be said of every other person who is in this narrative with him—an ensemble that is able to take historical figures and make them so real, they could be you and me.
Epy Quizon as Apolinario Mabini deserves special mention, taking calm and quiet, and making it a part of Mabini’s heroism as intellectual. Quizon’s gift is his ability to imbue Mabini’s gaze with complexity, standing as it does for the confusion and treachery of those times, and a most sincere love for nation. He deserves a movie all to himself.
The loyal soldiers that surround Luna were also wonderful counterpoints to the General’s fixed ways. Functioning as voices of rationality, Capt. Eduardo Rusca (Archie Alemania) and Col. Paco Roman (Joem Bascon) successfully play up the balance between being familiar enough with Luna to share a laugh or two with him, yet never crossing the line to the point of forgetting his superiority. When their stories end with the General they served, it is a poignant statement on loyalty and brotherhood, done elegantly without the trappings of unthinking fraternity.
Elegant is a word to describe the storytelling of Heneral Luna. Brilliant is another. It takes the task of (re-)telling history with a sense of what needs to be said about it in the present, with a sense of what mainstream history has silenced about us as nation. This is of course Tarrog’s opus, he whose sophisticated take on the genre shines through in his visuals and treatment. One gets the sense that everything in this film is deliberate, that the music and costumes, the choice of actors, the rhythm itself, all of it is intentional.
If there is one moment that stands for the directorial vision of this film, it is that moment when Juan Luna’s Spoliarium (1884) is interwoven into the narrative Antonio Luna. That one moment was magnificent. It is reason enough to see this film.
Trusting the audience
One realizes that Heneral Luna trusts its audience to be intelligent enough for this material. And one can only be thankful that it does not measure intelligence by whether or not you can endure a five-hour film (which is elitist in itself, thank you very much).
Instead it challenges an audience to see our heroes differently, if not more realistically.
Instead it highlights how General Luna’s humanity did not make him any less of a hero.
The fact that he lived, that he laughed and cried, that he would dare get on his horse and charge towards American enemy lines alone, that he might make mistakes, that he could get angry and temperamental, these make him even more of a hero. These did not make his stand for nation any less stable, or believable.
It made it all the more possible for the rest of us Filipinos, 116 years since General Luna’s death. That is more than enough reason to watch this film.