Movie Title Jose Rizal
Cast Cesar Montano as Jose Rizal
Jaime Fabregas as Luis Taviel de Andrade
Joel Torre as Ibarra/Simoun
Director Marilou Diaz-Abaya
Language Tagalog, Spanish (English subtitles)
Year 1998
My Rating 5 stars (out of 5)
Awards 1998 Best Picture at Metro Manila Film Festival

This was the Filipino movie I have been waiting for, for a long time.  Most of the Filipino movies that I've seen are cheap imitations of Hollywood movies with forgettable characters and forgettable plots.  But I won't be forgetting "Jose Rizal" anytime soon.

With impeccable production values and a truly great performance by the lead actor, Cesar Montano, "Jose Rizal" is the equal of anything that Hollywood can produce (and better than most of the crap that Hollywood routinely puts out on the street).

The movie tells the life story of Jose Rizal, the national hero of the Philippines.  It covers his life from his childhood to his execution at the hands of the Spanish forces occupying the Philippines in the late 19th century.  We are also thrown into the world of Rizal's novels (filmed in black and white), so we get a glimpse of how he viewed Filipino society under the Spanish heal.

One note, this movie is not for the faint of heart.  There are graphic depictions of violence and even torture.  The opening few scenes depict some episodes from Rizal's novels.  In one a Catholic priest rapes a Filipina.  I guess I now know where the Mestizo (i.e., mixed blood) class came from in the Philippines.  In the other scene a Catholic priest beats a child for alleged stealing.  Strong stuff, and it made me wonder how the Catholic Church could possibly retain any power in the country, if this is what the national hero thought about it.

The movie introduces us to the life of subjugation of the Filipino people under the rule of the Spanish friars.  From the execution of three Filipino priests in 1872 for alleged subversion to the harsh and unequal treatment of Filipino students in the schools, this film is a stinging indictment of Spanish colonial rule in the Philippines.  We see scenes both from Rizal's actual life but also from his imagination (via his novels).

As a young man, Jose is sent to study in Spain.  This is a plan hatched by his brother Paciano.  Jose will write and do everything in his power to bring to the attention of the world the abuses of Spanish power in the Philippines, while Paciano will protect the Rizal family at home and keep up the struggle against Spanish rule.  Jose excels in his studies as a medical student at Madrid University and eventually earns a degree as an ophthalmic surgeon.  Meantime, he becomes involved with a group of radical Filipino students who also seek to end the Spanish abuses in their country.  He eventually has a falling out with the student group as he realizes that the real struggle is taking place back home.  He decides to return to the Philippines.

He is arrested by the Spanish authorities upon his return to the Philippines in 1892.  He is sent to Dapitan in Mindanao where the Spanish authorities can keep a watchful eye on him.  It is there that he meets the love of his life, Josephine Bracken, although the movie does not devote much attention to this love affair.  When a rebellion breaks out in 1896 the Spanish governor orders that Rizal be moved to the prison in Manila.

It is here that Rizal is introduced to Luis Taviel (played by Jaime Fabregas) who has been appointed to defend him at his trial.  Taviel is a Spanish officer who at first mistrusts Rizal and views him as a dangerous revolutionary.  Most of the movie takes place in Rizal's prison cell and involves Taviel confronting him about his life.  There are frequent flashbacks but some of them are flashbacks to his novels, so it is sometimes hard to keep the order clear.  Eventually Taviel learns to respect Rizal and he decides to do his best job in defending him.

But it is to no avail.  The evil head of the Franciscan order in Manila arranges for a new governor to take over control of the Philippines.  The new governor promptly orders a show trial where the outcome has already been decided.  Rizal must die.  Despite his best efforts, Taviel cannot save Rizal from his fate.  The verdict is reached and the execution date is set for December 30, 1896. Taviel admits to Rizal that he is ashamed to be a Spaniard.

In what is the most bizarre scene of the movie, on the night before his execution, Rizal is confronted by his own character Simoun from his novel.  Simoun urges Rizal to rewrite him so that his mission can be for a higher purpose.  And so in his final work, Rizal pens "Mi Ultimo Adios" knowing full well that his death will light the torch of the Filipino Revolution.

The final few scenes show Rizal being led out to the execution ground.  He requests to face the firing squad but he is denied.  The Spanish want to shoot him in the back as a traitor.  But as he is shot full of bullets he manages to turn as he falls so that he lands facing the sky.  I must tell you that my wife was crying like a baby during this scene and she's seen the movie twice.  I must also admit that I had some moisture in my eyes too.  I was also muttering to myself "Spanish Bastards! Spanish Bastards!".  Strong Stuff.

This is by far the best Filipino movie that I have seen so far.  I would urge anyone reading this who likes movies, to either rent it or buy it.  One note, this is a rather long movie (well over 2 hours) so you might want to see it over two nights.  The copy I have comes on 2 video cassettes.