For the kind of talent he has, Mike de Leon should be making more films. But he is not. Every film he makes is followed by a long continual absence. It is as if every film he does consumes every drop of his overflowing genius.
His film on Rizal never made it to the Centennial. After shooting a few scenes, he decided to pack up. It was Marilou Diaz-Abaya who went on to do Rizal, and that extremely successful film became the high point of our country’s 1998 Centennial celebration. Now we know more or less what might have kept Mike de Leon from completing Rizal. “Bayaning 3rd World” gives us an account of what it takes for a conscientious filmmaker to do a film on the national hero. This is not a movie about Rizal; this is about the despair of filmmakers who want to do a movie about Rizal.
In a moment of frustration, one of the characters in the film throws a bust of Rizal to the floor. It breaks but is not shattered. It remains stolid and unyielding, like the countless Rizal statues that dot the country’s plazas and schools. No amount of deconstruction can undo the Rizal that exists in our people’s imagination. So what can one more film do to Rizal?
In the first instance, what should be the focus of such a film if it is to be different? The early films about Rizal understandably centered on the drama of the execution, taking off from that famous photograph of the short impassive man with the bowler hat who is about to be shot. It is a good starting point. From there the viewer may be led to a series of flashbacks culminating in the martyrdom of this great man. But what else can one say of this grim photograph that has not already been said?
His back turned to the firing squad, he looked relaxed. Was he at peace with himself and his God? Once this question is asked, you cannot avoid dealing with the retraction. Did he or did he not reconcile with the Church? Did he, in a moment of weakness, renounce everything he had written about the friars and the conduct of Mother Spain in the islands? If he retracted, what were his final moments with the Jesuits who kept him company like? Were they a series of confessions and manifestations of remorse? On the other hand, if Rizal staunchly held on to his convictions until the end, what could the Jesuits have been doing inside that cell?
The filmic possibilities of a retraction scenario are immense, but of greater import, as the film points out, would be the inferences that we would then need to draw about Rizal’s heroism itself. If we accept the Jesuits’ claim that he retracted, it would be nothing short of saying the Noli Me Tangere and the El Filibusterismo were a mistake. What kind of a hero would that make of him?
Rizal’s attitude toward the Catholic Church was as complex as his attitude toward the revolution. Even as he attacked the way religion had been abused by the Church, he did not seem to renounce his faith. He was not against revolution, but he did think the Filipinos were not ready for the revolution. Just the same, the revolutionaries made him an icon, and the friars used his alleged retraction to discredit the revolution. In the end, it did not matter what Rizal personally thought or how he actually lived. His ideas had acquired a life of their own. Rizal, the myth, overshadowed Rizal, the historical person.
For every use, a Rizal has been invented. The Katipunan used his name as a password. The Rizalistas made him a saint. Even the Americans, as Renato Constantino showed, created a Rizal suitable to a colonized people. Wherever it appears, his image confers legitimacy on the object that bears it. He is an abiding presence in our stamps and in the ever-shrinking peso. No business is marginal and no place so remote as to be undeserving of his name. Matchboxes and funeral parlors have carried the label “Rizal” with the same ease with which the name has been appropriated for towns, barrios, and highways. An object of worship and of banality in a society that has trouble remembering the past, Rizal is indeed a “Bayaning 3rd World.”
Did he seek martyrdom? Would he have agreed to be shot if he knew that his life would become a nation’s religion? Mike de Leon’s fictional filmmakers ask questions of this sort with a breezy Gen-X irreverence. They interview Rizal’s mother and his doting sisters. They pester Josephine Bracken with showbiz-type questions. But the deeper they dig, the cloudier the truth becomes. So finally, they decide to interrogate the man himself. The encounter between Rizal and the filmmakers is one of the wittiest scenes I have seen in any movie.
Mike de Leon’s Rizal raises philosophical questions in the most playful manner. What is the truth of a person’s life? Is it what the person thinks it was, or is it the sum total of its effects on others? The film expresses the near-impossibility of defining what is real and what is fictional in a person’s life. Different groups and different generations are bound to invent their own Rizal, and it is futile to ask whether any of the Rizals that exist the national imagination have anything in common with the “real” Rizal.
What is more important is the purpose with which a person’s life is revisited. There is no single definitive version of anybody’s life. Such a life, like the past, can be viewed from many prisms. The pictures and images we derive from such viewing will vary according to the practical interests we bring into the effort.
“Bayaning 3rd World” makes us aware of this plurality of possible perspectives, and of the need to understand the contexts in which they operate. Doing so liberates us from the authority of conventional images and leads us to new ways of telling a usable past.
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