A commercial success during its initial public screening in 1998, this film also reaped major awards in the country and even in international film festivals. The people behind the production of this film succeeded in capitalizing on the renewed interest of the public on historical themes since the country was celebrating the centennial anniversary of the declaration of Independence from colonial rule.
The contribution of this movie to the ailing film industry was spectacular. It proved for one that actors and actresses do not have to strip off their clothes for the movie to earn money or that serious themes such as history can generate huge profit as well. It immediately showed that the Filipino public will patronize a local movie over foreign films if they are to be provided with a good movie.
The film assured the celebrity status of Cesar Montano as an actor and the sophistication of Marilou Diaz-Abaya as a director. Abaya’s Rizal was actually the first of her three successive films (Muro-Ami and Bagong Buwan) which provided the public with a movie to talk about and applaud. Through her string of successes as a director, and in no small part also due to lack of great filmmakers in the country, Abaya was to occupy a respectable position in the country’s popular culture and film industry that was once occupied by Ishmael Bernal and Lino Brocka.
The choice of making a film out of Rizal’s life was sound and logical from the very start. A producer wishing to balance his aim between earning money and to make a memorable film has only to extend the big Rizal cult into a movie fantasy. No person has come to symbolize the struggle for independence other than Rizal. His life story has pervaded the public consciousness in a manner that any enterprising film producer could not resist noticing. A film about Rizal is an expected box office hit since the market will be assured by the burgeoning educational establishment. That Abaya’s Rizal would be a big success was hardly surprising at all.
Perhaps the greatness of Abaya’s Rizal was the superb balance between frank storytelling and delicate use of cinema illusion. By making the trial of Rizal as the focus of the story, viewers were allowed an easy and smooth transition between Rizal’s early life and the events surrounding during and after the trial. Research was obviously well-done as the movie progressed. Abaya and the scriptwriters relied heavily on the seminal work of Austin Coates for much of the details about Rizal and his endeavors. A student familiar with Rizal’s biography, especially that written by Coates, would be amused to watch the minutest detail about Rizal skillfully and sincerely portrayed on screen. The effect on the chilling re-enactment of Rizal’s last moments before his execution is a haunting climax of a fine movie.
Nevertheless, despite the many outstanding qualities of this film in narration, research and cinematography, the film failed to circumvent the conventional portrayal of Rizal as the perfect human being devoid of any potential weaknesses. After all, doing a movie about Rizal’s life has its risks. How can you even portray a life so complex and enigmatic such as Rizal’s into two hours alone? It risks simplifying Rizal and the ideas he has espoused throughout his life.
Abaya and the scriptwriters have succeeded in making Rizal the perfect Filipino hero by unfortunately using Andres Bonifacio as the anti-thesis. While Rizal was the embodiment of a rational, prudent, thinking nationalist, Bonifacio was portrayed as a short-tempered, aggressive, reckless plebian revolutionary. Whereas the question of independence is complex, Abaya made it a simple argument between Rizal’s rational approach towards the subject and Bonifacio’s ill-conceived decisions. As Rizal was raised to the high pedestal of hero-worship in the movie, Bonifacio was relegated as the anti-hero in the story.
One can argue that Abaya was making a film about Rizal and not on Bonifacio that is why Rizal had to be overemphasized in the movie. But portraying Rizal in a good light while destroying the credibility of another national hero is no way to celebrate the Centennial much more the struggle for independence. This is a manifestation of the colonial legacy in what Constantino rightfully termed as “veneration without understanding.” This is also a classic outcome of the struggle between groups vying to shape the public consciousness over how to view the past in relation to the present.
Rizal is still the Establishment’s national hero. How we give meaning to the past is determined largely by the prevailing order of society. Abaya’s Rizal is basically a proof of Rizal’s continuing appropriation by the class whose sworn enemies are those represented by the class of Bonifacio.
In the end, Abaya’s Rizal would pale in comparison after the release of Mike de Leon’s Bayaning Third World which was a more balanced and delicate rendition of Rizal’s multidimensional life.