Tuesday, December 25, 2012

El Presidente (Mark Meily)


After last year's surprisingly good period gangster film that is "Manila Kingpin: The Asiong Salonga Story", here is E.R. Ejercito again with an Emilio Aguinaldo biopic entitled "El Presidente", an infinitely trickier film to pull off, scope and exposition-wise.
If E.R.'s previous film focuses mainly on gangland altruism, "El Presidente" is all about patriotic resilience amidst imperialism, and it definitely shows on the film's abundant dose of sentimentalism. And if E.R. seems tailor-made for the role of Asiong Salonga (after all, he has already played Asiong in the '90s film "Asiong Salonga: Hari ng Tondo"), he seems feverishly out of place in this whole historical drama, especially when he's surrounded by character actors that are ten times more talented than him.
Now do not get me wrong, when I think of a more suitable and relatively bankable actor to play Aguinaldo, I can't really think of anyone save for Ejercito himself (as of the moment, that is). Except for his bulldog-ish cheeks, Ejercito nicely fits the title role specifically because of his relative mass appeal and sense of authority. But then, somebody has seemingly forgotten to remind him that "El Presidente" is, after all, a film and not a theatrical play.
With his repetitively oratorical hand gestures and monotonous line deliveries, despite of the stature of the person he's playing, E.R. is easily dwarfed by his co-actors in the film, specifically Cesar Montano, whose brief but strong turn as Andres Bonifacio is a mild cause for celebration. Except for his hair that's anachronistically gelled upwards, Cesar Montano's Bonifacio is so well-portrayed that I wouldn't bother for him to have more screen time than Aguinaldo himself. Granted, "El Presidente" is quite sophisticated with its cinematography and action sequences, but its whole narrative seems fairly derivative and very 'Philippine History 101' that the film's human aspect was left terribly wanting.
Complete with cursive texts beneath every establishing scene that continuously remind us that the film is more of a crash course on the history of pre-republic Philippines rather than a fairly humanizing story of a great man (this, of course, depends on who's seeing the film), "El Presidente" never quite connects on the emotional level. Instead, and this is quite saddening, it merely gives out the occasional 'wow' factor with its action set pieces, mammoth scope and nothing more. And although I also liked Baron Geisler's intense performance as a Spanish captain, the film's supporting cast was fairly uninspired and a tad too unconvincing; indeed, a bunch of artificially mustachioed lads sputtering things about independence and going slow-motion on simulated battles is not enough. Well, maybe that is the ultimate downside of a historical drama: the scope is almost always so big that the characters are rendered as nothing but glorified plot details.
In a way, "El Presidente" is "Jose Rizal's" (the film, not the man) campy and overly sentimental half-brother who gets into too much unjustified scuffles. If Cesar Montano's portrayal of Jose Rizal is one founded upon complexity, dedication and utter intensity, E.R. Ejercito's Emilio Aguinaldo is founded upon monotony, misplaced emotions and uncalled-for action star-ism. In one action scene when he has suddenly pulled out a very gangster-looking boot knife, I even expected E.R. to suddenly show his ever-wriggling tongue and shout "Ako si Boy Sputnik!" His performance is just so all over the place that at the end of the day, "El Presidente" has made me root more for Andres Bonifacio. Now I have this sudden craving to watch Richard Somes' Bonifacio biopic "Supremo".
But in all fairness, the film's final 15 minutes or so is quite powerful. In a way, it reminds me of the final moments of Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Last Emperor" in how both finely convey the elegy of time in the lives of the most powerful and seemingly immortal leaders. The appearance of Nora Aunor as Emilio Aguinaldo's second wife though, who was cast just so she can be put into the posters as a potential crowd-drawer, is a complete non-event. In my opinion, they could have put Lilia Cuntapay in the role and it wouldn't really even make a strand of difference.
"El Presidente", although admittedly a grand, sweeping production, is a very clunky film that offers little to nothing that our history text books have not taught us yet. Perhaps showing some of Aguinaldo's trivial humanity wouldn't hurt. And yes, "Manila Kingpin" is better.


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