Jaime Oscar M. Salazar
Heneral Luna (2015, directed by Jerrold Tarog) is an account of the time that Antonio Luna (John Arcilla) was the commander of the Philippine Revolutionary Army at the end of the 19th century, stringing together episodes from between 1898 and 1899 in order to sketch out the struggles of the first Philippine Republic, led by President Emilio Aguinaldo (Mon Confiado). Notwithstanding the epic possibilities of the material that it plumbs, the film evinces little interest in presenting a broad canvas of the war for independence against the United States of America, which, coming into its own as an empire, was keen to consolidate its control over the archipelago that it had acquired under the Treaty of Paris with Spain. Instead, Heneral Luna is concerned with proposing a kind of hagiography for its titular figure in such a manner that is inflected, perhaps unavoidably, by the blockbuster, or at least studio budget–busting, superhero movies that Hollywood has been reliably churning out in recent years.
The endeavors of the film to flesh Luna out towards “humanness” and “relatability” as he contends against apparently powerful enemies and great odds, or as he stumbles into comic situations—including a riff on the present-day struggles of Filipinos with the English language—are nearly perfunctory in fashion, ticking off such boxes as a major character flaw, loyal sidekicks, a formidable lover, and a doting mother, to wit: a belligerent temper, Eduardo Rusca (Archie Alemania) and Paco Roman (Joem Bascon), Isabel (Mylene Dizon), and Laureana Luna (Bing Pimentel). It also provides Luna with convenient opportunities to launch into monologues about his views on the revolution through the prompting of Joven Hernando (Arron Villaflor), a young journalist who taken it upon himself to develop a profile on the general for a fledgling publication that seeks to carry on the work of the people, Luna among them, behind the pivotal periodical La Solidaridad.
The results are, to say the least, ungainly: its tone is uneven and its movement incoherent, such that one never really grasps a sense of the stakes involved, of the immense height of such stakes; no matter how mightily the visual and aural designs—remarkable in and of themselves—strain to imbue onscreen developments with gravitas, the film is marked by a certain airlessness, a diminutiveness of scale, notably given the performance of Arcilla, whose version of the infamously bellicose Luna at times leaps headlong into the abyss of cartoonishness.
What makes Heneral Luna deplorable, however, is not the smallness of its world, but the smallness of its mind. This is demonstrated in part by the way that it opens and closes: with statements attesting to its status as a work of fiction. That it insists on drawing attention to what should be patently obvious, not only for films, but also for all narratives, does not, unfortunately, suggest that it has marked out a frame within which it is able to reflect upon itself and the conventions it cleaves to or from—a gesture that would become many a cultural text in these parts, specifically those that arrogate unto themselves the authority to purvey the story of that vexed and vexing entity called “nation”. Rather, the film brandishes these disclaimers in what comes across as an attempt to carve out a vantage from which it is entitled to indulge in oracular pretensions, aided by technical spectacle and burdened by neither rigor nor nuance. Only by “a combination of the real and the imaginary”, it announces at the beginning, can “the truth” about the Philippines be disclosed. And what is this so-called truth? The fight for emancipation, Heneral Luna alleges, was doomed by the very people who waged it, owing to their propensity for internecine strife and their inability to emulate Luna in his love for country, bravery, and, above all, discipline—each Filipino, therefore, is every other Filipino’s worst enemy, especially as represented in the film by a weak Aguinaldo and the unscrupulous duo of Felipe Buencamino (Nonie Buencamino) and Pedro Paterno (Leo Martinez); Aguinaldo and Buencamino are implicated in Luna’s brutal death.
It is not that “nation” should be understood as beyond criticism, because it well deserves the sharpest possible scrutiny that we can bring to bear upon it, regardless of what we end up discovering, reconsidering, and evaluating about ourselves—a difficult task to which we have not always been equal. The radicalness in the act of truth-telling that this film deludes itself into claiming, however, lies not in the boldness to proclaim unpleasantries as such, but in the fortitude to resist the simplistic in favor of the complex, and in the courage to renounce self-loathing in favor of hope.
To lay the blame for the failure of the revolution squarely at the feet of our people, to maintain that we lacked the will and the willingness to unite under a common cause—these are assertions nourished by utterly niggardly notions of nation and nationalism, of colonialism and imperialism. The extent of the destitution is adumbrated in the character of Luna himself, who, in spite of his repeated invocations of the need for discipline, is helpless to regulate his own puerile impulses and violent rages, pointing up the self-serving nature of his declarations—for instance, a cabinet meeting that does not go according to his liking provokes him to threaten a frail old man walking through the town plaza and shoot dead the chicken that the man was carrying in a basket—but the film is brazen in its incognizance, electing to exempt Luna and, even worse, the Americans, from any sort of accountability as it drives home its appalling point: that, by killing Luna, supposedly the sole bulwark of patriotism, it became the “manifest destiny” of the Philippines to be conquered, to be oppressed, to be crushed. In its contrivance of an allusion to Spoliarium (1884), by Luna’s brother Juan, the film recasts the allegory in defeatist terms: Heneral Luna is extravagant demagoguery that functions as a ringing endorsement of empire.
Why this message seems to have resonated so positively among the people who have watched the film—some have even come away from it professing to have gained deeper insight into Philippine history and culture—is beyond the scope of this review, but the fact that it does should give cause for alarm, particularly in an electoral season that has been marked by the resurgence of popular longings for the caress of an iron hand, for the smell of “gold and blood and flame”. Why are we so besotted by authoritarianism, and what will it take to dispel our paternalist lunacies?
Jaime Oscar M. Salazar works for an international humanitarian organization.