© GMA Films, Inc.A COMMON MISCONCEPTION ABOUT Filipino film is that it all contains the same recurring themes of sex and violence, rape and revenge. In Joel Schumacher's 8mm, one character says that a “snuff” film featuring an Asian woman being raped by two white men is “definitely from the Philippines.” The reality is that while a majority of Filipino films are skimpily budgeted and do contain explicit content, a small percentage of the country's films fall outside that cliché: melodramas, comedies, love stories and even timeless sagas.

One such film is José Rízal, a lavishly budgeted epic about the life of the country's national hero and martyr, who in the late 19th century sparked a revolution with his pen. Rízal wrote and published two novels exposing the tyranny of the Spanish empire and was eventually imprisoned for sedition. After a mock trial, he was executed in December 1896 on Bagumbayan Field.

José Rízal was released last year to commemorate the Philippines' Centennial Celebration of Independence from Spanish rule. Winner of 17 out of 18 awards at the 1998 Metro Manila Film Festival, including the coveted Best Picture, it is the country's most ambitiously mounted film with its historical detail and production values. The epic made its American premiere this spring at the Guggenheim Museum in New York as part of “Empire and Memory,” an exhibition of films about the Philippine colonial experience. It has also been showcased at the 49th Berlin International Film Festival and is scheduled for two exclusive screenings at the Shrine Auditorium on July 10.

Although numerous Filipino films have been widely acclaimed in international film festivals, Filipino audiences tend to favor Hollywood movies because of the low production values in most Filipino features. Meanwhile, in the United States, even the work of such internationally recognized directors as the late Lino Brocka (Macho Dancer) remains unfamiliar to Filipino communities, because few video outlets here rent contemporary Filipino movies.

The economic and critical success of Rízal, however, has brought hopes of reviving the country's cinematic golden age of the 1970s. There is a sense that more and more producers are departing from the “formula film” mentality to finance better-quality work. (Butch Jimenez, Rízal's producer, estimates its cost at roughly $2 million, four times what an average Filipino movie would cost; it grossed approximately $4 million in the Philippines alone.)

José Rízal was financed by GMA Films, a subsidiary of the Philippines' largest broadcasting conglomerate. The company employs mostly younger producers, who are introducing new technologies, including nonlinear editing and Dolby digital sound, into what was a dying movie industry. Jimenez, producer and president of GMA Films, says that rights to Rízal have already been sold to Poland and Singapore, and he anticipates that it will secure further international distribution. He's also negotiating the deal to package the film on video and DVD, which should help build a larger, international audience.

For her part, director Marilou Diaz-Abaya says that with Rízal she hopes to join the author's unfinished revolution for a culturally freer Filipino society. Part of that project is to reacquaint younger Filipinos with Rízal, and to inspire pride in the country and its culture. “To a lot of Filipinos, José Rízal is just a new name of Luneta Park, or a street, or a province,” says Diaz-Abaya, referring to some of the landmarks dedicated to him in the Philippines. “But to those who have watched the movie, José Rízal has become their cherished kababayan [fellow countryman] and their hero. They want to know and read more about him, perhaps in order to understand themselves and their complex nationality.”

José Rízal may signal an emerging revolution in Filipino cinema. In resurrecting the spirit of the great visionary novelist, the film will continue to inspire Filipinos just as Rízal's own story inspired Diaz-Abaya to overcome the challenges to her skill and patience in completing the film. “Rízal has stepped down from his pedestal in Luneta Park,” she says. “I want audiences to make an emotional connection with him and, if possible, fall in love.”


For a review of José Rízal, see the Special Events section in Calendar.

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