File this under Why Am I Only Watching This Now? We started watching Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s Jose Rizal (1998) yesterday evening. We didn’t finish it yesterday evening because the film is nearly three hours long.
I’ve come across Philippines based Francis Cruz’s review of Jose Rizal, and it helps with some of the things I am thinking. As a Filipino American, with only very limited study of the man and his role as a writer whose works helped inspire the Philippine Revolution, I should confess I appreciate the film’s very textbookishness which Cruz criticizes for its being relatively unoriginal. As Cruz discusses the film’s narrative but non-linear, flashback abundant structure as “uncharacteristic for a film that targets the Philippine mass as its audience,” I wonder if the target audience really is the Philippine masses?
I imagine all of this presentation of biodata would be retreading. I feel like since the Philippine masses would have generally grown up in a Rizal as National Hero culture, memorizing “Mi Ultimo Adios” for performance/declamation contests as youngsters, reading Noli Me Tangere as required reading in I don’t know what grade level and in I don’t know which language, and perhaps exposed to many cinematic depictions of Rizal over the past decades, all of the straight forward biographical information which Diaz-Abaya offers her viewers is already a longtime ago given, unless she’d anticipated the Philippine masses would relish such biographical details being depicted con todo forma (it is rather wrought).
Conversely, I and many other Filipino Americans did not grow up in a Rizal culture, nor did we grow up in a culture in which Filipinos could be Heroes, important literary figures, intellectuals, hence historical and cultural icons. I think about the fervor with which my uncle and mother discuss who really ought to be considered the Philippines’ National Hero, Andres Bonifacio or Jose Rizal. For me and my abstractness and distance, and as a writer, it’s just so interesting to witness the escalation of tone in these conversations, why a man who wrote a couple of books is or is not as important as an “uneducated” man who led fighters into battle; it was amazing to simply have a non-Filipino professor assign Noli Me Tangere to read alongside Theodore Roosevelt and José Martí. Back to the film, it’s novel for me to even be able to access a film that’s primarily in Tagalog (and grandiose, lispy Castilian), and starring Filipino actors, about whom I know nothing.
I agree with Cruz about the film’s overstated, operatic spectacle. The film opens with Rizal’s voice over orienting us to the situation of the Catholic church’s abuse of power, and a lascivious Spanish friar is bedding a fearful and breasts-prominent naked native girl. We do get it; it’s Padre Damaso raping Sisa beyond the pages of the novel. But I don’t think this is gratuitous as much as it is overstated for the non-Philippine masses who seem to be Diaz-Abaya’s target audience. She’s telling us non-Philippine viewers to get the gravity of this state of affairs.
Still, all this to say I am really appreciating this movie, its non-linear flashback abundance, and its movement between Rizal’s life story, the real life events and social injustices informing his writing, and the narrative of Noli Me Tangere. I think the film’s narrative is actually cut to be pretty seamless despite the jumps back and forth, which I think aid in underscoring Rizal’s idealism, and in the film’s being so emotional wrought. We see his stoic Noli alter ego Crisostomo Ibarra, we see how he is both construction and reflection of Rizal. Likewise we see Leonor informing the character of Maria Clara, and we see the relationships between both Rizal and Leonor (as of where I am at in the film, not yet substantiated as Rizal is shipped to Spain, which aids in its being so over romaticized), and Crisostomo Ibarra and Maria Clara (overwrought and illfated). It’s all very neatly done. Maybe too neatly done for some.
As well, I very much dig the code switching. There is one scene in Fort Santiago in which Rizal and his attorney Taviel (Luis Taviel de Andrade) first meet. The dialogue begins in Castillian, and at some point, I realize they are speaking Tagalog to each other. I can’t remember now who initiated that code switch, but to me it means something like, “Let’s drop the pretense,” or “Cut the bullshit here, and let’s really talk.”
This dialogue between Taviel and Rizal is great, for they get to talking about Rizal’s being a writer, and what a writer’s responsibilities are in telling “The Truth.” Taviel tells Rizal his story is one-sided and therefore not completely truthful. Taviel then says of what Rizal has created, it is not art but propaganda. Rizal responds, well, if the Spanish want their story told, they should write their own stories. Enough said. Hopefully we’ll get to finish the film this evening.