Goethe said, “There is no art in turning a goddess into a witch, a virgin into a whore; but the opposite operation, to give dignity to what has been scorned, to make the degraded desirable, that calls either for art or for character.”
So why then do we like burning effigies of traitors like Judas?
Maybe in the deepest and darkest corner of the human heart, we really take delight in the delivery of what we call just desserts.
Today marks the feast of the Twelfth Night, the official end to the 12 days of Christmas time. In medieval times, they called it the feast of fools. One day in the year when all manner of revelry revolves around defying convention, switching roles between king and fool, or doing one thing you've never done before; thus the secondary title 'what you will' or 'how you will' [ the word 'will' in Elizabethan english equating to love, like, or fancy thus in filipino translates as 'kung anong ibigin'] is used in Shakespeare's play of the same title.
Ergo, here's "what I will":
a certain someone i dream of waking next to [like the rest of the homosexual population out there who have a thing for multi-racial twinks who look like they can do no wrong...]
“Death In Venice” An Existentialist’s Commentary on Victorian Sensibilities By Vincent Jordan Niklaus de los Reyes-Torres
A Storyline’s Discourse on Art and the Artist
An understanding of Luchino Visconti’s film adaptation of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice would be somewhat daunting without having read the novel. The novel itself, a classic in literary existentialism is presented as a pure narrative, almost completely devoid of dialogue or characters directly interacting with one another. Thomas Mann wrote his novel as a study in pure literary form, descriptive and atmospheric, strictly stream of consciousness rather than involving the conventions of scenes with characters playing out their existence in terms of dialogue. Visconti makes this adjustment by creating scenes with dialogue for his characters, thereby filling in the blanks as it were of where his literary source left of and he does so in the pure, larger than life eloquence of his cinematic medium.
The film begins with an almost painfully beautiful sunset as a steamer moves along the Grand Canal nearing the port of Venice. The character of Professor Gustav Von Aschenbach is seen alone on a wicker chaise, wrapped in coats. The plaintive strains of Mahler’s Third Symphony is played on the soundtrack; music that Aschenbach echoes in the sadness or in the forlorn expression on his face. He boards a gondola. The gondolier offers to bring him straight to the Lido (the famed Venetian beach front lined with resorts and the famous tents which until today have not changed in their appearance and function), to the hotel where he is booked but he vehemently refuses to be taken straight there and instead insists to be taken to the steam ship dock to take only the hotel’s exclusive gondola service. Here we see that the character of Gustav Von Aschenbach is that of a man rigidly set in his ways and at this point in his life, he goes about it like that of a prissy old maid, a condition which the film will later unravel as something he is already predisposed to. A bizarre looking foppish drunk, old and wearing garish make-up who is making an ass of himself is seen on the quay, almost like a rather gaudy portent of things to come.
As Aschenbach settles into his suite at the Lido, we learn from an inconspicuous flashback that he is actually ill, that his heart is failing and that his doctor has recommended complete rest for him, thus this holiday in Venice. From this flashback, he is seen talking to his best friend and colleague, Alfred. We also learn that they are both men of music, that Gustav Von Aschenbach is actually a renowned composer. As Alfred is seen playing what is perhaps one of his compositions, he sits up and gazes upon an antique hourglass, explaining that his family had one of these and further talks about how the aperture of the hourglass is so tiny that one hardly notices the sands flowing through it until all the sands have run out; “until then it’s not worth thinking about it…until it’s all gone” Almost as if saying that he hasn’t paid much attention to his own life until now that he is made to confront his mortality with his heart condition.
At the Lido, Aschenbach espies what Thomas Mann describes in his novel as an aristocratic, Eastern European looking family, composed of a stately mother, a governess, three uniformly dressed daughters of variant ages, and an adolescent boy. The boy is strikingly an unmistakable thing of beauty. A boy with a face so androgynous it is difficult to judge it as being either pretty or handsome. He possessed a face so divinely angelic that it can only be described as being BEAUTIFUL. Coming from the Aristotelian template of The Poetics on what is beautiful, defined much by the Greek penchant for youthful male beauty; Tadzio defines the image of the conduit of that beauty: ever so ideally pleasing to the eye of the viewer just like the marble statues of the classical age. And true to Thomas Mann’s presentation of this particular scene in his novel, Aschenbach only catches snatches of conversations from the Polish family but it is enough for him to detect that the boy’s name is Tadzio. And thus begins his descent into his own private hell.
Aschenbach cannot take his eyes on the boy as dinner ensues and here, Visconti uses a flashback device, which is to recur throughout the movie, scenes which involve Aschenbach and the character named Alfred. Alfred it seems is not only his good friend and confidant but also the voice of his conscience, his devil’s advocate, his artistic tormentor, and, in a manner of speaking, the only other person who may share Aschenbach’s unrealized homosexuality. Visconti brings into perspective his thesis on the character of Aschenbach in the following dialogue with Alfred:
Alfred: Beauty, you mean your spiritual conception of beauty? Aschenbach: But do you deny the artist’s ability to create from the spirit? Alfred: Yes, Gustav, that is precisely what I deny. Do you really believe that beauty is the product of labor? Aschenbach: yes I do. Alfred: That is how beauty is born, like that. Spontaneous. In utter disregard for your labor or mine. It pre-exists our presumptions as artists. Your great error my friend is that you consider life, reality as a limitation. Aschenbach: But isn’t that what it is. Reality only demeans and distracts us. Sometimes I feel like I am aiming in the dark like a hunter. But you cannot expect life to illuminate the target. The creation of beauty is a spiritual act. Alfred: Beauty belongs to the senses, only to the sense. Aschenbach: But you can’t reach the spirit through the senses. It is only by complete domination of the senses that you can ever achieve wisdom, truth and human dignity. Alfred: What use are they? Genius is a divine gift. Not a divine affliction; a simple, morbid flash fire of natural gifts. Aschenbach: I reject, I reject the demonic virtues of art. Alfred: Then you are wrong. Evil is necessary. It is the food of genius. Aschenbach: You know Alfred, art is the highest form of education and the artist has to exemplary. He must be a model of balance and strength. He cannot be ambiguous. Alfred: But Art is ambiguous. And music the most ambiguous of all the arts. It is ambiguity made a science.
Here, Visconti establishes the character of Aschenbach as one of purest conventions: Someone who is unwilling to explore his dark side for the sake of morality, someone who cannot and will not see or go outside the box. The film moves into a series of close encounters between Aschenbach and Tadzio’s family, each time, he tries to deny the attraction that he feels for the boy. And we see Aschenbach consumed by the very sight of Tadzio that puts into perspective the bubbling conflicts within.
He tries to run away from the situation by leaving for Munich and on the flimsiest excuse - which was as one would recall, the loss of his luggage at the train station and his insistence that he would not leave Venice lest the luggage be returned which is nuanced with the actor’s relief that he was pleased that he was not to leave Venice at all - heads back to the Lido again. On the train station, he notices that a vagrant has collapsed from what appears to be a viral illness, a foreshadowing of that which he was to learn of Venice’s current state.
As he stalks Tadzio from a distance, he learns that a cholera epidemic is afoot. This was of course cinematically presented thru the disinfection of the city by the pouring of a malodorous milky liquid, postings on the walls from the city health department, and the suspicious avoidance of the Venetians to give him a straight answer when he asked. As he struggles between his inner conflicts over the attraction that he has for Tadzio, the film flashbacks into either snatches of his life; that he was once a family man with a wife and daughter, that he once tried to explore his sexuality in the confines of a brothel, that he lost his daughter, and that he has repeatedly tried to deny his homosexuality in the following flashback with Alfred:
Alfred: That is not shame that is fear. Shame is a spiritual distress to which you are immune because you are immune to feeling. You are a man of avoidance, of dislike, a keeper of distances. You are afraid to have direct, honest contact with anything because of your rigid standards of morality. You want to be as perfect as your music. Every slip is a fall, a catastrophe, resulting in irreparable contamination. To be in debt to one’s own senses, for a condition, which is irredeemably, corrupt and sick. What a joy for the artist! Aschenbach: I have to find my balance somehow. Alfred: How unfortunate that art is so indifferent from personal morality, Otherwise, you would be supreme, unreachable, inimitable. Tell me, do you know what lies at the bottom of the mainstream….Mediocrity?
Finally, we also learn from these series of flashbacks that Gustav Von Aschenbach’s last concert was a dismal flop, which caused him his near fatal heart attack. The words of Alfred taunting him with “Pure beauty, absolute severity. Purity of form! Perfection! The abstraction of the senses! It’s all gone. Nothing remains. Nothing. Your music is stillborn. You are unmasked.” All these harsh reality bites of course play bad only his already weak constitution and failing heart. From an artists point of view, Aschenbach has reached a dry spell in his musical career, characterized by his compositions in the concert drowned by the heckling and noise of a cruel audience; a kind of writer’s block. Aschenbach’s life struggles or hurdles have taken its toll on his music and even the heart ailment is seen as secondary.
In a vain attempt to appear young again, he tries to doll himself up n a barbershop, the result is that of the macabre fop that he meets earlier in the movie (dyed hair and eyelashes, unusually curled mustache, and a powdered face that would rival a Peking Opera actress). And before he could even so much as come within speaking distance from Tadzio (a fantasy which was portrayed in the film as the only opportunity he had to put his hand on the boy, but that is just what it was, a fantasy; adding more to the tolling obsession), his family has learned of the cholera epidemic and are making ready to leave the hotel. The film tragically ends with Aschenbach suffering a heart attack on the Lido, which now visually presented as a deserted beachfront with a few patrons, far from the previous images of him watching Tadzio have fun with others of his youth in a very crowded beachfront. This tragically happens while gazing at Tadzio from afar with the hair dye streaking down his clown made-up face, a lonely vision of the ethos he had so staunchly tried to defend.
For What Is Love Without The Madness
Many people would tend to look at this movie and conclude that it is simply a movie about repressed homosexuality. But a closer look at the literary template from which it was culled from may prove otherwise. One must remember of course that historically, Queen Victoria had been the progenitor of most of Europe with her many children being married off to other monarchies. Thus, the age of Victorian Morals and Victorian Sensibilities dominated most of the known civilized world at the time. It was a world of repressed emotions and repressed values. As the literature of the time would attest, most of the characters that were popular at the time either rose up from their oppressive conditions like those created by Charles Dickens or were totally engulfed by their circumstances like those created by Dostoyevski and Franz Kafka. And need we mention Oscar Wilde and his rather scandalously silent battle with his own gender issues? Considering that Victorian society had a habit of turning their heads on obvious taboos yet have a fun time discussing them over high tea. Enter the twentieth century existentialist writers who tried to brave a whole new world of possibilities. Thomas Mann who grew up in a time when Victorian values and sensibilities were being questioned, wrote this sterling masterpiece of a man’s search for his art and his true nature.
The most intriguing question that this movie poses is, what if a man’s search for the perfection of beauty leads him to find it in another man? Which leads one to ask the even more provocative question, does it make a homosexual or not? If beauty is universal, then it should, as a matter of form, like God, know no gender, nor age, nor creed, nor intellect, nor time, nor sexual affirmations. Perhaps the tragedy of Gustav Von Aschenbach’s character lies in his lack of understanding for the true nature of beauty; that it is intangible, that you can never take it to bed with you, and that, it can never love you back. At most, beauty is an ideal. A metaphysical concept that can either inspire you or drive you into pit of despair; either of which is a matter of conscious, deliberate choice
The film’s theme of the quest for beauty that can only lead to obsession and destruction is perhaps best articulated when Aschenbach tries pathetically to doll himself up in a feeble attempt to look younger. As he doggingly stalks Tadzio throughout the streets and beaches of Venice, the camera’s point of view is only on Aschenbach, it is uncertain if the boy is indeed teasing him or egging him on or is it all a figment of his all too repressed imagination? He is content to gaze upon the object of his desire from afar, almost afraid that if he comes any closer, his object of perfect beauty would disappear like the sands in his hour glass.
The fact that Aschenbach’s character refuses to do so much as venture even the slightest expression of his innermost feelings for Tadzio speaks of the kind of Victorian values which were the generic ethics of the time. Aschenbach chooses to love from a distance. Like his repressed music, his life is a stillborn concerto. While it is often said that the singular expression of love, be it in the form of a kind act or a kind word can be a liberating experience, Aschenbach is content with allowing his pining for this unattainable love to eat him up inside. To the Victorian writers of the 19th century, this represented an ideal. In this case the long suffering for the sake of art and beauty, the idea of being content with loving for the sake of loving without so much as any form of recompense or alleviation of hurt. In this respect, Aschenbach’s character is no different from that of the characters of Thomas Hardy, Henry James or Victor Hugo’s, writers who are best known for writing about Victorian hypocrisy.
Whether Thomas Mann’s intention in the writing of Death in Venice was as an exploration of the social taboos surrounding homosexuality or whether he meant it as an entire dialectic on art or ideal beauty to be precise, the movie however clearly explores the homosexual angle. Dirk Bogarde’s superb acting is oriented towards subtle mannerisms that are unmistakably those of a repressed homosexual of the time. Homosexuality will always be as taboo today as it was during the early part of the twentieth century (funny considering that our classic and universal template of art criticism is still the Aristotelian model that came from a civilized race which had the greatest influence on human thought, practicing a form of homosexuality accepted by the Greeks and was seen as of no consequence).
In England, it was considered a time during the days of Oscar Wilde, which is why Thomas Mann’s enduring tale is considered a masterpiece as it has elevated the subject of homosexuality to articulate the human condition. So what if Aschenbach is gay, haven’t most people, homosexual or not, gone through the travails of loving somebody they can’t have? It’s a love theme that is as timeless as the gold and purple sunsets of Venice.
As far as Visconti’s film adaptation of the novel goes, it is a testament that explores the authenticity of production design to best bring out the atmosphere and feel of a bygone era. It was made in 1971 and won acclaim for its meticulous treatment to cinematic detail, sets, costumes and art direction. Piero Toci’s charmingly muted costumes mirror the colors of a Venetian summer of the early 1900’s are wondrously complemented by Ferdinando Scarfiotti’s brilliant art direction. The film’s outstanding cinematography, which was brought about by Pasquale de Santis, is by far one of the more enduring examples of color photography for the screen that has been unrivalled to this day. Visconti not only directs this film but is also its screen playwright along with Nicola Badalucco. And as a Visconti signature, it has been a literary urban legend that Thomas Mann was actually alluding Gustav Mahler into the character of Aschenbach, which was why Bogarde was made to look like Mahler and was also the reason why Mahler’s 3rd and 5th symphony were used on the soundtrack.
Death in Venice (1971) like his film The Intruder (1976) showed Visconti’s skeptical view on history as a progressive development. These two movies are set in their own time, which is our past, treated with no history at all considering that they have neither a future of their own nor any connection towards it that is even implicit to our present. This cutting of the past from the present is reflective of what some consider deviant sexuality where the protagonists are tragically aware that they are the last of their kind or line. A closer look on Visconti by Laurence Schifano (1990) revealed a connection between ambivalent feelings about his homosexuality and his fear of his approaching death (from a 1972 stroke which he never fully recovered).
We all have the Heart for Venice
Having read Aristotle’s Poetics, it still eludes me how ironic the ideal is to the reality of which we struggle. Thomas Mann’s humanization of the ideal of beauty contrasts the mirror of the Aristotelian template on looking at beauty and judging a thing of beauty. While Aristotle never did bother to actually consider the complexity of the human experience that goes into the search for beauty, history is full of anecdotes of artists and their struggles to represent it: Michaelangelo himself took no notice of proper hygiene to the point that the inner sole of his shoe got stuck to his feet just so he could finish his Sistine Chapel, Van Gogh had to cut off his ear for to him the object of his desire and the beauty he found in her deserved no other gift, and Mozart to his death had his rival inscribe notes to his requiem composition to give no less.
Venice, being the city that patronized the artistic heritage and riches of both east and west is a thing of beauty unto itself, set against the shifting waters and canals, its beauty is incomplete without the city reflecting upon it. As the old saying goes, “If you have a gift for the art of living, then you have the heart for Venice.” Aschenbach has never really lived his life, until he has found his idea of beauty…and when he did so in a city where beauty is never complete without the reflection, it ends in tragedy.
Maybe that is what beauty is all about, an elusive quest for that one thing that can never be ours and yet we cling to it for all the tragedy that confines the human existence; a bitter slap in the face to wake up in the tangible world from the eternal dreaming of the intangible.
since today is a date of multiple ones and repetitions, let's repeat this one:
Does the lack of period cinema pieces reflect the poor cultural state of a nation’s film industry or does it represent an industry’s collective practicality with the lack of interest in mounting these admittedly expensive projects? I am far from really knowing the zeitgeist of filmmakers these days; while there are many that say the Filipino film industry is either dead or dying, on the other hand some dare say that it is being resuscitated by the rise of independent digital cinema. Well, you will have to forgive me for saying that an expensive digital SLR camera does not make a photographer nor can a high end digital motion picture camera make a true filmmaker [I‘m just wired to think that way].
For at a time when I am at my neck’s end with the nth sequel to Enteng Kabisote, or am truly amazed at how the Filipino public laps up badly written fantasies like Exodus: Tales from the Enchanted Kingdom, or finding Jinggoy Estrada winning film festival best actor as the first biggest joke of 2008, there’s a part of me that is hoping and praying that somehow, next year, a well written period piece executed with such commercial viability can truly reflect the direction this nation’s cinema is taking.
Not long ago, I decided to watch BALER as it was the only movie that seemed to interest me with the roster of films from the 2008 Metro Manila Film Festival; also the fact that it was a period film stirred by curiosity. I have this fascination with recreating the 1890s and the novecento period of Philippine history. Credit that to a fine-tuned olde worlde sensibility which I more often than not cling to.
In a nutshell BALER is based on the historical account of The Siege of Baler which began in 1898 and lasted for about three hundred or so days. In the midst of this, is the romance between an India [female native of the islands] woman named Feliza [The film’s press release used the term ‘Filipina’ which was pretty much incorrect for that word was used to call a female of Spanish blood who was born in the islands; also called Insulares.] and a soldier named Celso -of Spanish and Indio descent- played by Jericho Rosales. Right there and then let me point out that there’s such a thing we call color-blind casting [casting actors despite of race or color] which has been applied in the theater for quite some time now when the need arises. But when it comes to the cinema, and since this was a period piece, I was taught that we were governed by certain casting aesthetics to retain the suspension of disbelief. As much as there were fair-skinned Indias at the time, the choice of Anne Curtis as Feliza gave off the impression that she was a Mestiza rather than a daughter from an Indio family. And on the other hand, Jericho Rosales might pass off as one those half-breeds descended from the dregs of the Spanish military ranks that were not influential enough and were sent to the islands in their service to Spain, but there was something I could not put to words about his casting which I can only describe as an odd aftertaste.
On the other hand, the other actors they cast as pure-bred Spaniards, as Mestizo as they were, were an odd bunch of too foreign and not too foreign looking to begin with [Sorry, PJ -he was cast as one of the soldiers]; ergo I somehow understand that to have put Jericho Rosales together with Mark Bautista and Jao Mapa as half-breed Spanish soldiers would justify the casting. Speaking of which, I shall point out the first cultural cliché of the movie: Jericho Rosales plays the role of a soldier with a Spanish father and a Pampango [Capampangan or native of Pampanga province] mother. It has been common knowledge that the Spaniards have an affinity for the Capampangans because of all the Indios, they were always on the side of the Spaniards.
So, in this melting pot of complications, let me add that Feliza is the daughter of a revolutionary leader played by veteran action star Phillip Salvador and acclaimed actress Rio Locsin. She has a brother named Gabriel played by Carlo Aquino, who is more interested in serving the Church rater than picking up a gun to fight for his country. It is for this reason that the romance between Feliza and Celso remain a secret.
Now, let me get to the nitty-gritty of the film. I have learned that if in the first five minutes you have not acquired the interest of your viewing audience, then the film will have a hard time keeping their attention. The first few shots of BALER, [portraying the massacre of Spanish soldiers the year before 1898], as much as it tried to establish the premise of a crumbling colonial power in the midst of quashing a revolution, seemed a bit ubiquitous and rushed. This short-lived prologue would seem to be a foreshadowing of the cinematic pace the director chose for the film which is best defined as “erratic”.
There was nothing special I could remember from the camera work nor was there anything I could say that took me from my seat into that time and place they were creating. Even in the love montages featuring Feliza and Celso [the first of which the audience was treated to seemed like the pace of the jump cut from the Hans Montenegro segment of the Jojo Veloso VHS scandal], I felt as if there was no fluidity in the incorporation of the romance into the historical nature of the film. As a viewer, I felt as though I was bombarded by ubiquitous visions of lovers strolling or running by the beach and end up kissing; only this time, they were in period clothing. But seriously, no India woman would be caught dead wearing a sleeveless camison and a saya like that by the beach in 1890s Philippines, as far as my education takes me. Perhaps the only scene that drew a curious smile on my face was when the lovers used the church’s confessional to pass the message of the time and place where they are to meet. Call me nit picky but if the writers already took so much cinematic license to begin with, why did they not portray their courtship with the secret language of gestures using fans, kerchiefs, and flowers used by lovers during that time to emphasize the authenticity. To the least, I’m sure an Ambeth Ocampo book was not unavailable to them.
Also, what I found lacking in this cinematic experience is this sense of urgency brought about by the changing of flags, the excitement of the birth of a new nation, and the last stand that the Spaniards are about to take inside that church as if it were the Alamo. I mean there are scenes that established thus but they seem to have been missing that intensity to contrast all that love against the impending battle. For when I was on my seat I was going, “So there’s supposed to be this big siege that’s about to take place, why don’t I feel the gravity of it?”
And I don’t know what they wanted to achieve with it, but a cinematic device that got lost to me were these two film clips in black and white that showed two events: the Battle of Manila Bay and Aguinaldo’s declaration of Philippine Independence. They look like lost parts of a Charlie Chaplin movie, in their choppy crude texture that found its way into the film. Okay, if they had intended for it to be a narrative device to display the coinciding historical events by using that early film reel effect, they would have been better off using that from beginning to end to give it another dimension to period standards. But unfortunately, they make up a one-time-small-time sequence that never amounted to anything.
From the way I see it, there was a lot of opportunity to explore blocking, cinematic shots, and creative camera work. But as one pointed out to me, “The blocking was high school velada. Everybody facing an invisible proscenium.” Later would I concur by saying, “There’s only so much you can do with blocking it like a firing squad.”
When it came to the film’s Production Design, I have but one word: Texture. I think the film tried as much as it could to use the natural scenery it was able to film in. You don’t see that much green anymore just anywhere in this country. But when it came to the constructed sets, even without any design background, one still knows by the look of it what they had were literally sets. It’s like when you watch a Filipino sitcom and you know that the concrete walls are actually made of plywood. Like in one scene showing the church interior, the wall and those stairs look like they came out of an AngTV fantasy set. The church, which was supposed to be the centerpiece of the entire design template, looked as if it used up Divisoria’s Styrofoam supply from the outside. I have no idea if that was the actual architectural façade of the church therefore I have to stop criticizing the odd shape of the structure which does not fall into the usual silhouettes of a turn of the century church that often doubles as a stronghold. And was that a statue of Our Lady of Fatima they mounted inside the central niche of the church’s façade?
Also, in one montage, they used a “parol’’ [a star-shaped lantern that has always been associated with the holidays in this country] hanging by the window of a “bahay kubo” to signify that it was Christmas. This has always been a pet peeve of mine. You see, the five pointed star “parol” never existed until about the 1920s. The shape of which was an American import copied off from their flag. Believe it or not, in 1898, there were no Christmas decorations; and if there were, they were only limited to the church in the forms of the crèche and the Niño dormido which came out only on December 25th. And don’t argue that the Americans were already here at that time because even by 1930, the concept of decorating Filipino homes for Christmas had yet to catch on.
When it came to the Costume Design, the biggest question I had was with the uniforms of the Spanish soldiers. If I remember my Philippine costume history correctly, the revolutionaries wore a uniform called the “Rayadillo” which was a pinstriped light blue and white uniform. So, if that was the case, why did the Spanish soldiers then wear the stripes of the “Rayadillo” and the Indio revolutionaries wear the light blue linen uniforms of the Spanish colonial army? I have not been living under a rock, and I have yet to read a paper that says I am wrong about this thing. That’s not something that can be easily overlooked if one is doing a period piece about your own country.
As for the rest of the costumes in this film, they were just that: costumes. They all look like they came straight out of the costume department, crisp and newly ironed. Then there’s the Franciscan robe, the clerical vestments, the altar boy robe… I mean, they have not changed much since the Byzantines and surely with Pope Benedict XVI reviving the use of traditional church vestments in the Roman Catholic Church, they could have at least gotten the silhouette right. But then again, they could argue that these were provincial clerical robes and that would be one excuse to use.
Now, I’m not the best Spanish speaker out there, but listening to the Spanish they used in this film, they would have done better to say the least. There is a nuance to the Spanish they used in the 1890s that is not found in the sprinklings of the Spanish dialogue they tried to inject. Even the character of Baron Geisler who plays a Spanish officer suddenly shifts to speak Tagalog while addressing the character of Joel Torre in accent moderne.
I had this summation about Baler midway through the film: I told myself that the movie’s heart was in the right place yet it seemed to beat the wrong way.
Like the second cliché of the film uttered by Mark Bautista [hated the mustache they made him wear for the movie] as the other half-bred soldier named Lope who was in-love with another India in the movie, “Mahirap umibig sa panahon ng digmaan.” [Love is difficult in a time of war] the film is not without stock characters that defined the generation of revolutionary leaders played by Joel Torre and stage and screen veteran Leo Martinez; the latter whose performance seemed to be the saving grace of this film.
Also, I think the writers did their best to portray both sides of the conflict. I sympathized with the plight of the Revolutionaries attempting to gain recognition with their sovereignty over the islands under the Spanish and American tug of war, the dynamic of having multi-racial soldiers that can be seen as traitors in a colonial army as well as their sentiments of being stationed in the islands, and the impatience of the revolutionary forces against the resolve of the Spaniards to stand their ground all contributed to the multi-faceted plot line. Even with that, it seemed to me like the editing would make an effort here and then suddenly just move on to the next one out of necessity. As I said earlier, I can’t seem to figure out the cinematic pace of this movie.
I’ve been having a hard time composing my next point but here goes: I used to think that when it came to doing period movies about your country, you’re supposed to have a grasp of the things within your own backyard. I mean, if Ngila Dickson could design costumes for the Last Samurai and she’s not even Japanese, imagine what the Japanese themselves -like Akira Kurosawa has done with Emi Wada for Throne of Blood or Ran for that matter.
Also, I was taught not to insult your audience’s intelligence. The true measure of artistic integrity lies in not settling for whatever is acceptable and getting away with it but in taking a truth and keeping to it [a lesson I admit to have learned the hard way]. In all fairness to BALER, it gave it a good try but somehow midway, they seem to have just settled. By the way of period films, I can’t judge if we actually took a step back from the period pieces of recent vintage but as per BALER, I wasn’t taken from the world I knew to this world they sought to create. And there I was expecting to be somewhere else, but like the Parabasis of a Greek play, I was constantly reminded by all the things I was seeing, that I was watching a movie [It‘s Lapu-Lapu all over again…with shields and spears mounted on walls like in Urdaneta lanais]. If that is the case, then we had better stay away from doing period films lest we hang ourselves.