Historical biopics are tricky. You must check and countercheck facts since this is no fiction. It is as real as it gets.
When Artikulo Uno came up with Heneral Luna, a biopic on Antonio Luna, the task was far from easy.
Here was a man even his American military adversaries hailed for his brilliant strategies. Here was a man who commanded the respect of thousands of soldiers, and even—if the film is to be believed—made Emilio Aguinaldo, the first president of the Philippines, feel jittery in his lofty post.
HUMAN SIDE. Still, General Antonio Luna (ably played by the award-winning John Arcilla), is human. The film made sure moviegoers aged 13 and above (the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board rated it R-13) saw that.
He fell in love with Isabel (played by Mylene Dizon). He admits getting tired of fighting and plotting ways to outwit the enemy in times of war. He is putty in the hands of his mother (Bing Pimentel).
And oh yes, he flies into a rage all the time when he sees cowardice and laziness.
That’s because Antonio Luna was anything but cowardice and laziness. He flirted with danger and death. He went the extra mile to marshal military troops, even when his own carriage driver thought it was time to call it a day.
In the heat of battle, Luna thought nothing of charging solo at American troops armed with cannons and machine guns. He called esteemed men in government and business moguls as cowards because they chose to collaborate with the enemy—the Americans—instead of fighting them to liberate the Philippines from yet another colonizer.
Luna was unforgiving when it came to traitors and soldiers who twiddle their thumbs while their counterparts elsewhere die for the motherland.
The Sublime Paralytic Apolinario Mabini (played by Epy Quizon) was right when he said that it was impossible to control Luna.
POETIC LINES. “Nasubukan mo na bang hulihin ang hangin?” he asked when someone, in desperation, sought his advice on handling the feisty general.
These poetic lines are something you don’t usually hear in rom-coms that fill moviegoers’ ears many times over.
“Kailangan munang tumalon sa kawalan,” Luna replied yet again to a young man’s question on how Filipinos can finally enjoy freedom.
Filipino is not the only language the well-educated, well-traveled Luna is fluent in. His trips to Europe made the affluent Luna conversant in French (after all, his mom went by the aristocratic name Dona Laureana Luna).
So, it’s strange that one scene showed Luna talking in halting English, and finally ordering one of his men to arrest an American trying to stop him from using the train because he (Luna) admitted running out of words to say to the foreigner.
This is no Indio. This is a man who studied in the best schools, Ateneo, among them. Best of all, this is a man whose confidence was tested in the toughest of places: the battlefield.
He’s expected to speak the King’s Language with utmost confidence.
Or were the filmmakers trying to inject humor in an otherwise heavy film filled with gore, fighting, confrontations, intrigue and betrayal?
The opening scenes did say that the filmmakers took some liberties here and there. Was this one of them?
WRONG VALUES. Another scene showed Filipino civilians crowding a train Luna wanted to use to transport soldiers in the fastest way possible (back in 1898, that was the fastest means of transportation).
In so doing, the soldiers can’t even take a single seat in the train jampacked with their kababayan raring to enjoy the sights.
If this was again a case of creative license, it hit the bull’s eye this time. It showed how—then and now—we Filipinos still prioritize family over everything, even something as sacred as love of country. This, Luna rightly observes, is our undoing, the waterloo that keeps us from forging ahead to a brighter future.
There’s another fly in the ointment: Emilio Aguinaldo, no less. The film depicts him as an emotional weakling. Although the film didn’t show any specific scene pointing to Aguinaldo as the culprit—a series of events singles him out.
Aguinaldo sent Luna a telegram summoning him to go to Cabanatuan, Nueva Ecija, in what the general thought would be a meeting that will anoint him as a new cabinet member.
Before that, his men were telling Aguinaldo how Luna posed a serious threat to his (Aguinaldo’s) presidency. Read: Luna literally and figuratively had to go.
Put two and two together, and you get the picture, without images staring at you on screen. Who needs those images when you also know that Aguinaldo is also a suspect in the killing of another hero, Andres Bonifacio?
While Antonio Luna stands erect—like a lion looking over his lair, Aguinaldo (played by Mon Confiado) lacks that unmistakable glint in the eye, that gung-ho leaders are known for.
If the goal is to show Aguinaldo in a less-than-flattering light, the film succeeded, not only in the steady march of events it shows. It succeeded in the way Confiado’s stance lacked that sparkle of leadership, that sure-footedness one expects from the head of a republic.
Epy Quizon (left) as Apolinario Mabini and Mon Confiado (right) as Emilio Aguinaldo
TO INSPIRE, NOT TO BRING DOWN. The film is tilted in Antonio Luna’s favor.
After all, the film is for, of, and about Luna. It’s a film that will move you to dare, to love your country. It aims to inspire, not to bring down.
Aguinaldo—if you are to go by the film’s premise—is not someone who will not deliver on this promise.
Where Luna follows the beat of a more noble drummer (the motherland), Aguinaldo seems to listen only to the call of selfish ambition.
Moviegoers, especially young people who are the prime targets of Heneral Luna, are supposed to see the stark contrast, and take the cue from there. Not only that.
They’re supposed to do something about it by letting Luna’s fire consume them as well.
If only it were that simple. Seeing a hero die for one’s country on screen is one thing. Luna did it. Ninoy Aquino did it.
But seeing change happen because of it is another.
The death scene of Antonio Luna is as brutal as it is highly stylized.
When Luna's lifeless body is being dragged across the courtyard, the scene is suddenly arranged to mirror The Spoliarium, the famed painting of Juan Luna (the brother of Antonio).
Instead of a bloody gladiator being pulled away from the Roman Colosseum, a bloody Antonio Luna is being pulled away from the cruel battlefield that is Philippine politics.
SLEEPING LUNAS. Will the seeds Heneral Luna plant once it opens in commercial theaters bear fruit, especially among the young?
It should. But the question is, will the present political system—chaotic as it is—allow it?
The film is a clarion call to awaken the sleeping Antonio Lunas in each of us. Like Luna, that cry of “Fuego!” may misfire. It may get muffled in the political wrangling and crass ambition all around us.
But as Heneral Luna shows, it’s worth a try. It may be flirting with the unknown, with danger.
But why curse the darkness when you can light a little candle? That’s what heroes are supposed to do.
That’s the challenge Heneral Luna poses. Yes, it could be like fighting windmills. But you’ve got to start somewhere, however small—by reporting a wrong, standing up to corruption, saying no to mediocrity.
It could get you in trouble. But it could also make you feel good about yourself.
Hope does spring eternal, after all.
P.S. Stay behind for the post-credit scene: you won't regret it.
Ed's Note: The "PEP Review" section carries the views of individual reviewers, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the PEP editorial staff.