When a movie decides to take on the subject of our history, it tends to adhere to a certain form. It is, more often than not, a form dictated by reverence. The subjects are heroes first, and humans second, and the events depicted within are all moments of great import, every single scene some great turning point in their lives and in the tide of history. And more often than not, this form results in staid, boring storytelling. Heneral Luna achieves distinction by going against all that. It is the rare historical film that seems to recognize that our history is in equal parts farce and tragedy. And it places in its center one of the most complex and flawed personalities to take part in these absurd proceedings.
The film picks up with the Americans arriving in the Philippines, their true motivations still unknown to the fledgling Filipino government. Antonio Luna (John Arcilla), as commander of the Filipino military, advises President Aguinaldo (Mon Confiado) to strike before the Americans gain too much of a foothold in the country. He meets resistance from other members in the cabinet, particularly those interested in doing business with the Americans. Soon enough, the country is at war with new invaders, and Luna tries to fight them off while having to deal with the rampant insubordination within the ranks.
What is immediately striking about the film is that it’s funny. This is ultimately a very serious movie, one that can only drive towards the tragedy of its subject’s fate and the implications of that event. And it ends up delivering a very powerful message about the country and its history. But it manages to find levity in its depiction of our revolution. It doesn’t take very long for the film to reveal its irreverent streak, its first big battle designed to highlight the absurdity of Luna’s situation. There is an element of farce to the whole thing, the film finding strange, sad humor in the national pursuit of self-interest. And Luna himself is a comedic figure, a madman prone to bursts of manic laughter in the face of the bloody realities of warfare.
The result is a much stranger film than one might expect from a historical epic. These films tend to be little more than limp-wristed hagiographies, the usual demands of storytelling giving way to the perceived need to pay tribute to the giants of history. But quite appropriately, given its subject, the movie is much braver and much more accomplished. It’s just more willing to try things, to break out of the staid, boring bonds of the genre in order to make the history come alive. The film gets as much out of a series of telegrams between Luna and General Mascardo as it does from big battle sequences. In accepting the frailties of its characters, the film is able to find action in places other than the battlefield.
Some parts do feel a little awkward. American speech from the period just never seems to fare well on screen, and a section of the film devoted to Luna the lover feels like a distraction more than anything else. But though not everything works, the film’s willingness to take risks ensures that it’s never boring. And those risks are managed well enough with sharp filmmaking and excellent acting. John Arcilla puts on the performance of a lifetime as Antonio Luna. The actor gives Luna a certain sense of glee that separates the performance from any other portrayal of a national hero. His Luna seems fully human, if a little bit monstrous. At his side, Archie Alemania almost steals the show as he goes above and beyond in a strong supporting turn. Mon Confiado, Epy Quizon and Nonie Buencamino, among others, offer strong, bold spins on big historical figures as well.
Beyond its obvious technical achievements, Heneral Luna is worth seeing for its audacious approach to tackling our country’s tragic history. It is all at once bold, artful, darkly funny, informed and deeply entertaining. Some bits of it work better than others, but as a whole portrait of this volatile, fascinating individual and the time in which he existed, the film’s audaciousness pays off in spades. It makes the revolution come alive in surprising, delightful ways. This film triumphs in capturing the spirit of its subject, the whole enterprise fueled with a heady mix of rage, irreverence and a genuine love of country. It is everything that an Antonio Luna biopic should be.