I’ll add the pictures for this thing later, when I have the time to be bothered by it.
The last time I posted in this blog was in February, a few days short of the Mamasapano encounter (remember that?). For the cover photo, I decided to use Juan Luna’s Spoliarium. I can’t really remember why. It’s a good picture and it illustrated the plight of the Roman gladiator, giving his life for his oppressor’s entertainment. It was a powerful message at the time, in the context of the Illustrado movement. But it’s not really the message for Mamasapano. Or is it?
Before I go on a tangent, let me stop myself. Let’s talk about the latest film that’s making the rounds: Jerrold Tarog’s Heneral Luna. Spoilers, obviously.
I first started this blog last year to talk about Filipino films, but that went exactly nowhere. I don’t regret nixing it. Yet now, here I am, talking again about a Filipino film. I personally like the little bookends in life. In this post there are two: Juan Luna’s Spoliarium to a film about Antonio Luna, and the very subject of this post. It’s those little things that I like. In a way it feels as if life has a certain narrative to it; as if somebody is deliberately making callbacks to previous events.
Anyway, Heneral Luna. This is a historial biopic about the man, his life and his eventual death at the hands of his own countrymen. He was a brilliant man, a scientist and an adept general, and he was called “the only real general the Filipinos had”. That was Antonio Luna. The film looks at Luna’s history and understandably takes a few liberties. Some events are combined, some are glossed over and some details are just left there with little explanation, as sort of little nods to people who know their history. (For example: Tomas Mascardo and Antonio Luna both loved the same woman, Isabel Cojuangco. Now you know why that scene happened).
The film is itself, top-notch, as expected from Tarog. I’ll confess that the only other film of his that I’ve seen is Sana Dati, but I feel that Heneral Luna managed to stay on point when compared to that. The film uses an interesting way of narration, by using the scenes set in the interview room with the Philippine flag as a backdrop as a framing narrative, while at the same time interweaving flashbacks and continuity together. The final interviews with Buencamino, Rusca, and Aguinaldo are clearly set after Luna’s assassination. After the war, even, as we can clearly see that the Philippine flag is draped such that the nation is at peace (red field on the right). Luna’s interviews are slightly harder to place. There is a scene where their talk is interrupted by a soldier saying, “It’s time”, which places the timeframe during the war, but the flag still shows that the nation is in a state of peace. It’s easy to dismiss it as a gaffe on the director’s part, but Tarog isn’t known for his lack of attention to detail.
Let’s talk more about the flag. Heneral Luna opens with a shot of the Philippine flag, then with the good General standing in front of it, evoking the opening scene of Patton, although on a much smaller scale. Fitting, because the Filipino nation is in itself a much smaller one compared to the US, and this war is a much smaller one compared to the Second World War. As the film progresses the flag is dirtied and bloodied, and in the last shot it is burned. With the end of the film comes the end of the nation’s aspirations for peaceful independence. I think the decision to keep that flag, and only that flag depicted as it should be during times of peace is deliberate. That flag represents the nation’s hopes and ideals, and its desecration and eventual destruction only show us how our ideals were lost.
Which lead us to the general himself. In the opening scenes, where the Philippine Cabinet is holding a meeting, all shots of Antonio Luna had religious iconography in the background. It was either a crucifix, or a picture of the Virgin Mary, or a statue of the Santo Niño. This isn’t confined to the first scene either. In the last scenes, there is a shot of Luna going outside to the courtyard. The camera lingers a bit. In the background is the Santo Niño. A man comes into the foreground; his assassin. Of course, this prevalence of religious iconography can be explained by the fact that both scenes occur in churches, but these shots are deliberate.
In Heneral Luna, the eponymous general isn’t merely a fiery protagonist, but a Christ-figure for the Filipino people. He is nigh mythical in his prowess and he is the instrument of the nation’s salvation, exemplified by his feats of daring and his undying love for the motherland. The religious iconography is in a way, the first nod to this.
In the film, the general’s exploits parallel Christ in so many ways. There is a scene where he charges against the American line and is shot, only to be miraculously saved by a bag of coins (this actually happened by the way). His aide-de-camp comes to his aid and tells him, “This is not your time. Your men need you.” There are scenes where he says, “War is my cross,” and “Is this my fate?” He lashes out against vendors outside a church. It is only after he listened to his mother that he realized that the possibility of being assassinated was very real. In the end he is betrayed, and killed. The men responsible wash their hands and claim no fault.
In Heneral Luna, the man is essentially not a man, but a figure larger than life. He is symbolic of the nation’s patriotism and willingness to fight. Luna, in the film, embodies the Filipino spirit and represents the Filipino’s singular hope of victory against all odds; the Filipino’s salvation, it can be said. Even his death, as dragged and extraordinary it may be, represents how utterly super-human he is. Antonio Luna had a greater destiny that was cut short, and with his death so too comes the death of the nation.
In the final scenes the film starts to unravel and loses continuity. The division between the viewer and the film is broken as American generals MacArthur and Otis laugh at the camera, pointing a finger and telling us, “Your only hope and you killed him.” Aguinaldo and Buencamino plead to the camera that they did no wrong, as if justifying their actions to the viewer. Antonio Luna appears and talks directly to the interviewer-character, Joven, and effectively, to us. The filmic structure collapses without Antonio Luna. Heneral Luna is, after all, a film about him, so without the general the film makes no sense. It also means that everything fell apart without Luna.
Heneral Luna is a deeply intelligent film, in both a cinematic and symbolic sense, and its message is clear. In the beginning of the film, Tarog explains to us through narrative text that reality and fiction must be blended to tell the Filipino nation a true message. By the end of the film it is clear. Antonio Luna is the savior of the Filipino people, and it is only when people like him return to the Philippines will we be saved.