EL PRESIDENTE (Mark Meily, 2012)
For what it's worth, EL PRESIDENTE is an enjoyable escapist action-epic flick, which is capably helmed by Mark Meily who's proven already he can do epic via BALER. The scope and spectacle of EL PRESIDENTE resembles that of Marilou Diaz-Abaya's triumphant JOSE RIZAL, although much is left to be desired in this retelling of General Emilio Aguinaldo's life story. My first argument is that in the fat 2 hours and 40 minutes running time, many elements were missing for a film that's supposed to depict Aguinaldo not only as a freedom fighter, but also a husband and a father. No doubt about Aguinaldo being a Filipino. The film is patriotic as one could wish for, and at times that patriotism becomes the film's weakest point especially with the preachy tone.
In respect, EL PRESIDENTE incorporates some of the important issues surrounding the founding of our first republic, and captures the intensity of the times when dissenting opinion among Filipinos threatened to destroy the Philippines from within, which is a force even more horrifying than foreign invasion.
One notable element is the depiction of Andres Bonifacio. Bonifacio transforms from glorious leader, to breakaway commander, and in his final moments he was still given the utmost respect. Bonifacio, as the film maintains threatened to jeopardize plans for a systematic and rational governance of the Philippines, but even in his objection, he is nobly put. As a man who believed in his ideals, he was a force to be reckoned with, and Cesar Montano brilliantly channeled Bonifacio's rage and idealism.
ER Ejercito can pass off as Aguinaldo, but his portrayal can sometimes exude too much macho persona (I'm dropping the age difference argument already), much like his Asiong Salonga role a year ago. As a result, Aguinaldo becomes a man too stereo typically masculine that when we watch the movie, we see ER the man, and not Aguinaldo the character being portrayed.
EL PRESIDENTE may take the cake for being the most star-studded film of the year, with basically every cast member from MANILA KINGPIN present. The gang's all here: John Regala plays a friar, whereas Baron Geisler is a ruthless Spaniard commander, while Ronnie Lazaro is Aguinaldo's comrade Candido Tirona. That's not all. It would be exhausting to enumerate every known actor who appeared in this movie.
Cameos include Sunshine Cruz as Gregoria De Jesus, Lou Veloso as Julian Felipe, and Ian Veneracion as a Spanish commander. But what EL PRESIDENTE may be significant for is for being the film that buoyed Gary Estrada's acting career back up. Here he plays Mariano Alvarez, who becomes in-charge of Imus after Aguinaldo's forces drove the Spaniards away.
In terms of Aguinaldo as a family man, not much is discussed. Cristine Reyes as Hilaria Aguinaldo seemed more of a trophy wife than an actual one. The great Nora Aunor appears much later on as Maria Agoncillo, but the role could have very well been taken by any other actress. If for any consolation, the first time Aguinaldo and Maria laid eyes on each other, Nora Aunor was cute and giggly, almost childlike showcasing her coyness in the Maria Clara sense.
In terms of taking sides, EL PRESIDENTE seems resolved to justify Aguinaldo's actions i.e. having Bonifacio killed (ooops, spoiler... if they didn't teach you this back in high school), which may be apologetic for some and self-important for others, but at least the filmmakers took a side.
Felix Roco is a capable actor, but as Gregorio Del Pilar he fumbles for words, which makes it doubtful for us to believe if he can really lead an army. I'm thinking Jason Abalos (his cunning portrayal in MATER DOLOROSA quickly comes into mind) but that's my preference.
Come to think of it, EL PRESIDENTE is too macho an epic what with all the men shouting at each other, and Cesar Montano's strength can only be matched by another actor of equal caliber- Christopher De Leon. As hotheaded general Antonio Luna (whom I remember as the man who once had a duel with Jose Rizal over a woman, which tells you how much of a hotshot he is), De Leon is brooding, muscular, and seemingly devoid of any mercy.
EL PRESIDENTE should be an important film, if only for its boldness and its objective to inject some history back into our cinematic consciousness. At minimum, it should have you hitting the library (or the internet, but I hope the library) double-checking the facts. It surprised me how much I did not know about the founding of our first republic (which may not be accurately depicted in the movie, but that's beside the point). Flaws aside (the old woman character ought to be scrapped, the fight cinematography and editing seemed a ripoff of Zack Snyder's 300 and one of the fight scenes involved Filipino fighters dying off cue), it showed great potential for Filipino filmmakers to tell stories worth our time and money. I'll happily take this one over another lowbrow comedy.