Being a history buff, I really made time to watch "El Presidente," about the President of the First Philippine Republic, Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo. It is about time that era in Philippine History was given a definitive movie rendition. I had high hopes about this film, since producer Laguna Gov. Jeorge "E.R." Ejercito (as Jeorge ER Estregan) gave us a very well-made biopic of gangster Asiong Salonga in last year's MMFF. It had not been easy to find time to watch since this film had a formidable running time of two hours and thirty minutes.
It was so annoying that into film. Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo (Estregan) and his generals were about to launch an attack to take over the town of Cavite Viejo. From there, it follows the life of Aguinaldo, from the events leading up to the declaration of Philippine Independence on June 12, 1898, to his capture in Palanan by the Americans, up to his death at the age of 94 in the year 1964. The battle scenes were very well shot with a huge cast of real extras playing the soldiers of all nationalities. There were some impressive close-up stop-motion special effects during the fight scenes, as we saw in films like "300" or "Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter".
The film did not shirk to tackle very controversial historical issues about Aguinaldo's role in the deaths of Andres Bonifacio and Antonio Luna. They did not hide the fact that all this was based on the memoirs of El Presidente himself, hence the probable bias in point of view. Now, what truly happened is still the bone of historical contentions. Bonifacio in particular was presented in a very negative light here. Montano's acting highlight as Bonifacio for me was his pained reaction to losing the vote for president at the Tejeros Assemby to his breakdown when someone protested his win as Secretary of the Interior. This scene alone was worth his Best Supporting Actor award. Too bad I did not get to watch the recent film biography of Andres Bonifacio entitled "Supremo" to see and compare its version of these same events. Antonio Luna was played by Christopher de Leon in his typical acting style. The script basically concentrated on his nasty temperament, not on his military prowess. But then again this was not a film about Gen. Luna anyway.
So, how was Estregan as Aguinaldo? Unfortunately, as with the problem of Estregan as Asiong Salonga the year before, he tends to be very melodramatic in his acting style. He indicates almost everything he says with some awkward gestures. There was a scene when Aguinaldo was exiled where Estregan silently pours out his emotions in unrealistically exaggerated bawling, accompanied by swelling dramatic music. If this was his attempt to add points to his quest to be best actor, someone should advise him that less is more when it comes to acting nowadays. It is also remarkable that every time the camera focuses on his face, he has skin so flawless that it radiates like a halo. That was some impressive special effect right there.
The huge name supporting cast was a veritable who's who of Filipino character actors. It was actually fun to try and identify all of them when they appear on screen playing all the revolutionary heroes we can think of and more. It can be amusing to see them in very fake- looking stiff hair and make-up though. There was everyone from the expected likes of Ronnie Lazaro, Sid Lucero, Allan Paule, John Regala, Joko Diaz, John Arcilla and Yul Servo, to the unexpected likes of Epi Quizon, Ian de Leon, Dennis Padilla, Will Devaughn and Bayani Agbayani. Baron Geisler is really quite stereotyped as an antagonist, and he really delivers the goods as a smirking Spanish officer, despite the puny mustache they made him wear. He was quite good in sword fights too. The only realistic Spaniard in my opinion was Ian Veneracion who did not need to don fake facial hair. Emilio Garcia, Gary Estrada and Wendell Ramos could have been realistic Spaniards but instead they play Filipinos.
There were only two female supporting roles. The first wife Hilaria, played by Cristine Reyes, was practically a silent role where all she had to do was look pretty, and die later without aging despite after having four kids. Much ado had been made about Ms. Nora Aunor playing Maria, his second wife. Unfortunately, this was such a bad case of miscasting. She looked ill at ease from her first scene as a shy young lady to her last scene as she lay in bed with Estregan as senior citizens. This last scene was woefully shot in such an ugly angle for Aunor that she looked unrecognizably bad. Too bad as that was an important scene about Aguinaldo's joy upon Macapagal's transfer of Independence Day celebrations from July 4 back to June 12. Oh yes, Sunshine Cruz also had a cameo as Gregoria de Jesus, and you can imagine that it was unrealistic.
Overall though, despite all the imperfections, I still think this was a very earnest film made with the very best of intentions, and obviously produced with generosity of budget. I commend Gov. E.R. Ejercito for taking on this huge project, as this is a story that needed to be told. Students nowadays can use this film to gain interest with the history of the Philippine Revolution as this movie brings all those historical characters to life, from Apolinario Mabini to Gregorio del Pilar. It is up to their teachers to guide them in those contentious issues, especially the events involving the iconic revered hero, Andres Bonifacio. This is a movie that will serve its purpose when it is watched critically and discussed afterwards.