While it missed the chance to be part of one of the biggest Philippine film festivals in 2015, the biopic Ang Hapis at Himagsik ni Hermano Puli has been chosen as the closing film of the 2016 Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival.
“I am proud to join this year’s Cinemalaya with my latest work because this festival is close to my heart,” said the film’s director Gil Portes during a news conference in Quezon City.
“Puli’s story is basically a love story, his love for country, and his love for God,” Portes added, describing the film.
At 70, Portes is enjoying a career renaissance that started in 2010 when his black comedy Two Funerals won five major awards at the festival.
Hermano Puli, written by Enrique Ramos, stars Aljur Abrenica in the title role of the almost forgotten early 19th century preacher from Lucban, Quezon. Puli led a movement for equality and religious freedom against the Spanish colonial movement half a century before the martyrdom of Rizal, Bonifacio and Luna.
The film celebrates the heroism of the young Filipinos of the past who shed their blood for the freedoms we all enjoy today. Like Rizal and Bonifacio after him, Apolinario de la Cruz, better known as Hermano Puli, was a young man who dared to question inequities of the Spanish era.
He was only 18 when he founded the Cofradia de San Jose, a religious brotherhood that spread like wildfire among his fellow native Filipinos throughout Southern Tagalog. He was either just 27 or 28 when he was condemned as a heretic and executed by the colonial government.
Portraying a hero
At 26, Abrenica is just the right age to portray the most challenging role of his young career.
“I consider Hermano Puli as an eye-opener. Siya ang unang lumaban sa pamamagitan ng paniniwala [He was the first to fight for what he believed in]. He’s a hero for me,” he said.
Abrenica then shared that he had prepared for this film long enough and went as far as visiting the place where Puli grew up since there was limited information about the hero.
“[I had to immerse myself because] from my research, [I can’t get] exact information about Hermano Puli. That got me frustrated so [I went to] Quezon province, I stayed there for four days. Pinuntahan ko kung saan siya pinanganak, kung saan siya lumaki, even sa ilog kung saan siya naliligo [I went to the place where he was born, where he grew up, even the river where he bathed]. I also talked to some of his surviving relatives,” he said.
Additionally, the young actor had to lose 15 pounds for the character but this shedding of weight caused rumors that he was suffering from depression. During his movie’s news conference, Abrenica insisted that the film was the reason why he lost a lot of weight.
“Nagpahaba din ako ng buhok, nagbasa din ako ng Bible na Tagalog [I let my hair grow, I read a Tagalog Bible], all of that just to feel [my]character,” he said.
According to the Kapuso actor, while looking for location and casting went smoothly, the biggest hurdle of Hermano Puli was finding a financier.
“Naramdaman ko kung gaano kahirap ang paggawa ng proseso sa pelikula at sa paghanap ng producer. Nakaabot kami sa Bulacan at Parañaque, parehas kaming na turn down. Ang hirap ng pinagdaanan namin [I felt how hard the film process was, the difficulty in finding a producer. We were turned down in Bulacan and Paranaque City. What we went through was hard],” Abrenica said. The actor was with director Portes and screenwriter Ramos when the two were looking for a producer.
Because of lack of funding, the movie had to withdraw from the 41st Metro Manila Film Festival. Honor Thy Father replaced it at the last minute but the latter was later disqualified in the Best Picture race, causing a major controversy and, consequently, a Congress hearing.
To impart the film’s message of heroism to today’s youth, Hermano Puli has launched a nationwide campus tour and forum called “Bayani Ba ‘To?” The tour kicked off with rousing success on July 9 at the Angeles University Foundation, where it enjoyed a 1,300-strong audience of enthusiastic college students.
It will cover 40 colleges nationwide and will wrap up in mid-September, in time for the movie’s commercial run.
Joining Abrenica in the cast are fine young actors Louise de los Reyes, Enzo Pineda, Markki Stroem, Kiko Matos, Ross Pesigan and Abrenica’s brothers Vin and—in his acting debut—Allen.
Ang Hapis at Himagsik ni Hermano Puli also stars Menggie Cobarrubias, Stella Canete-Mendoza, Alvin Fortuna, Sue Prado, Abel Estanislao, Simon Ibarra, Jun Nayra, Diva Montelaba and Elora Espano.
The historical drama will have its gala premiere at the Tanghalang Nicanor Abelardo of the Cultural Center of the Philippines on August 13, on the eve of Cinemalaya Festival’s awarding ceremony.