The (Filipino) Filmfest 2000, charted many of the contemporary directors from Nick Deocampo, Raymond Red to Peter Chua but it also showed many classics. Notably, Gerardo De Leon's The Moises Padilla Story, is a rare piece where ex-Philippines president, Joseph Estrada, played himself and his character's inherent dualism to perfection.


Nick Deocampo's Mother Ignacia is a bigger, better-funded, better-produced film than his Pedrong Palad (Pedro Palmer); why, then, do I prefer the latter so much more than the former? Is it because the former - the life and times of a saintly woman, and the 400-year history of the group she founded - is less personal Deocampo, and so much less interesting? You bet.

Deocampo, admittedly puts in clever touches like the use of a beautifully detailed model of Intramuros, and he has campy fun with some of the evil fantasies that torment Mother Ignacia (there's a great moment where she's with a man, and instead of kissing him goes down on her knees). Otherwise, it's a largely forgettable exercise in conscientious and tasteful storytelling - a restful two-and-a-half hours in the movie theater. On the last day of [the Filipino] Filmfest 2000, there were two significant shorts shown, before the main features: Raymond Red's Anino (Shadows) and Peter Chua's Buwan (Moon). Both are well-budgeted 35 mm shorts. Anino, about the wanderings of a photographer around Manila, has the advantage of an extraordinary cast (Eddie Garcia, Ronnie Lazaro, John Arcilla) and lovely amber lighting.

Buwan is even more remarkable, its black and white imagery edited to move with all the fluidity of a dream - or a nightmare, if you prefer. Both, however, suffer from huge lapses in credibility - in Anino, we're asked to believe that the photographer (Lazaro) would just give his camera to a child; in Buwan we're asked to believe a man can lie atop a hugely pregnant woman and rape her (it's like raping a woman with a basketball strapped to her belly). On the evidence of the two shorts, it seems that we have an abundant supply of daring and imaginative filmmakers - it's the writing that needs improving.

Lamberto Avellana's Anak Dalita (The Ruins) gives us the lovely image of a poor community living in the ruins of a large cathedral, and the love affair that ensues between a one-armed man (Tony Santos Sr.) and a bar hostess (Rosa Rosal, whose statuesque figure - 100 per cent natural, mind you - puts to shame the silicon sensuality of Rosanna Roces, or Ara Mina). Avellana's neo-realist film quickly and quietly tells the story of the two lovers, with the surrounding church and community for backdrop. The ending is melodramatic - the result of two deaths, a shootout, and a villain's dramatic last-minute conversion - but otherwise the film is a model of economical storytelling.

Gerardo De Leon's The Moises Padilla Story - about an aspiring mayoral candidate (Leopoldo Salcedo) who is tortured and killed during election season - was a quickie political propaganda flick made on behalf of Carlos P. Garcia during his election season. One man's propaganda, though, may be another's cinematic near-masterpiece; De Leon's vivid direction - plus the film's bullet momentum and intense acting, puts this one near the top of his considerable oeuvre.

De Leon keeps a firm rein on Salcedo's tendency to act larger-than-life - his Padilla is a recognizable human being, vulnerable and charming. The filmmaker turns Salcedo's rugged handsomeness (he was nicknamed The Great Profile) into a heroic icon, and understands that icons achieve full magnificence only when they are desecrated - when they are spattered in their own blood. De Leon spatters a lot of blood in Moises Padilla; the beating and whipping of Padilla may well be the longest and most intense torture scene ever put into a Filipino film.

Padilla may be the Christ figure, but acting-wise the film belongs to its Judas - Philippine President Joseph Ejercito Estrada as Padilla's best friend, called in and compelled to supervise his torture. The way Estrada plays him (with a brooding intensity worthy of James Dean) you couldn't tell who suffers more - the man being tortured, or the man inflicting the torture (when cornered at the end of the film, Estrada looks relieved to be caught).

It's actually a big joke. A scandalous killing essentially ended Estrada's career way back when; no producer would touch him, until De Leon asked for him in Moises Padilla with only one condition - that he play the villain. The punchline is, Estrada comes through with a performance of complexity and great sensitivity, bordering on the miraculous. Now if he can only reprise the role for his real-life Presidency...

Note: Businessworld, February 25, 2000. The above also appears in Noel Vera's Critic After Dark: A Review Of Philippine Cinema (BigO Books).
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April 3, 2007

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