Supremo took on quite a challenge with the story of Andres Bonifacio. Besides the very practical concerns of shooting a period piece, the story of Bonifacio is one that is hard to sum up. Supremo chooses the epic path, sticking mostly to the portions that involve battles and heroic declarations. It is a fine enough telling of the history, though it lacks the flavor and insight that could have really made the movie transcendent. Still, it is a remarkably well-crafted film that puts bigger budgeted fare to shame.
The movie begins in 1882,with the death of Andres Bonifacio's wife, and his awakening to the injustices being perpetrated by the Spanish. It then skips ahead to 1896, just as the existence of the Katipunan has been revealed to authorities. With Bonifacio as leader, the movement is forced to go into battle. Bonifacio leads a small, untrained, poorly armed force on a march to Manila, hoping to lay siege on the walled city of Intramuros with the help of comrades from other provinces.
The first half of this movie is kind of stodgy. The film features an extended prologue that seems bent on creating a dramatic origin story for the hero. It doesn’t work, and it only ends up delaying the action. The film then glosses over much of the buildup to the revolution and jumps straight to Bonifacio as leader of the Katipunan. This first part offers little insight into the character, the movie seemingly focused on forced dramatics and heroic posturing.
Things pick up rapidly in the second half. Here the movie starts to examine Bonifacio’s pride and brashness, looking into the events that would eventually lead to his downfall. The film moves to a more nuanced portrayal of the character, one that also embraces his failings. The film does this amidst a backdrop of ingeniously staged battles, each featuring a level of craftsmanship that goes far beyond what one would expect from a production of this scale. In fact, a lot of these scenes look a lot better than even big-budget mainstream features.
The film goes for epic, and it mostly gets it. It at least mimics the look of it, the production looking downright lavish at points. It’s a real testament to the production design of director Richard Somes and his crew. This movie just looks and feels like a big budget historical epic. This comes with drawbacks, though. The movie seems to be satisfied with historical depiction, and while there is value in that, it does make for a somewhat less interesting picture. It’s an attitude that carries over to acting. Aside from Alfred Vargas, who imbues a real sense of passion into Bonifacio, the film is filled with stiff, droning performances that seem mostly concerned with reciting the dialogue.
All in all, though, Supremo is a remarkable effort. It is obviously the product of real dedication from a group of consummate craftsmen. Though it takes very few risks in the telling of the history, it takes great risks in telling the story at all. The film will probably find its greatest value as a teaching tool, offering future generations of Filipinos a nuanced look at one of our national heroes. As a film, it comes off as a bit stiff, perhaps a little too concerned about coming off epic. But in moments, it finds the blood of the character, and it lets it run.