It didn't quite work for me, but I'm not the target audience. It's a semi-documentary from the Philippines about their national hero, Jose Rizal, so not unreasonably is assuming that its audience already knows about him.
Firstly, what is it? What does "semi-documentary" mean? Answer: it's essentially a documentary, but presented through two layers of script and actors. Ricky Davao and Cris Villanueva play two filmmakers who want to make a movie about Rizal, but can't agree on the right angle. They discuss it. They argue about which subjects are boring or old hat. They go through the historical record, going back in time to talk to important people in Rizal's life. (Well, sort of. "I am not Rizal," one of these people eventually says. "I am a figment of your imagination so you could make sense of your film.")
So this is a behind-the-scenes film about the making of a fictional non-fiction film. I think.
Stylistically it's lively. It's in black-and-white, which lets them segue at will into archive footage, old photographs, a pastiche of silent cinema with tinkly piano music, parodies of commercials and more. There's a bit of animation. I enjoyed all that.
Nevertheless I struggled a bit, initially to get a handle on Rizal in the first place and then later to care as much about him as I should have. Now arguably this is an invalid criticism. My ignorance isn't the filmmakers' fault. They made their film for an audience who'd known about Rizal all their lives. His face is on their currency. The day of his execution in 1898 is a national holiday and this film gave me the impression that he's regarded as the country's greatest national hero. There's no need to sell him to Filipinos.
THINGS I LEARNED FROM WATCHING THIS FILM
1. Rizal isn't a particularly good subject for a movie. (That's the characters' judgement, not mine.) He wasn't a swashbuckling adventurer. He travelled and wrote poems and books.
2. He had an English/Irish pseudo-wife (Josephine Bracken), whom he couldn't or wouldn't marry. He'd renounced the Catholic Church some time earlier and would have had to take back his renunciation in order to marry.
3. Rizal is literally worshipped by some Filipino cults.
4. When being executed, he looked a bit like Charlie Chaplin.
5. His writings were important for his ideas about the future of his country, which made the Spanish authorities unhappy enough to send him into exile. Revolutionaries made him the leader of their movement in absentia, but when he learned about this he rejected them and their methods.
6. There's quite a lot of room for debate about his motivations and actions, especially regarding his relationship with Bracken and an eleventh-hour conversion back to Catholicism. "I retract with all my heart whatever in my words, writings, publications and conduct have been contrary to my character as a son of the Catholic Church."
THINGS I DIDN'T LEARN FROM WATCHING THIS FILM
The guy was a genius. He could speak 22 languages and would switch between them in his writing, which makes him hard work to translate. A German doctor, Adolf Meyer, called him "stupendous" in his ability to master multiple disciplines. In addition to being a famous writer, poet, political thinker and founder of a movement for social reform, he was an ophthalmologist, sculptor, painter, educator, farmer, historian, playwright and journalist. He also dabbled in architecture, cartography, economics, ethnology, anthropology, sociology, dramatics, martial arts, fencing and pistol shooting.
It's said that his execution by the Spanish government started the Philippine Revolution, which ended in the Philippines seceding from the Spanish Empire. He also believed in peace and dignity and didn't give a free pass to revolutionaries just because they were fighting oppressors. "Why independence, if the slaves of today will be the tyrants of tomorrow?"
He sounds monumental... which I imagine is the standard view of the guy, whereas this film is getting into the wrinkles. It's not a warts-and-all portrayal. It's more just "warts". Personally I'd have appreciated a bit more of the "all", but with hindsight I'd say the filmmakers were right to ignore me there. They chose the story they were telling and told it, without trying to cover all the bases and appeal to every possible constituency on the planet. Besides, I could easily have done all this reading-up before watching the movie, instead of afterwards. If you're thinking of watching this, a little homework beforehand might help you too enjoy it more.
Besides, if you're looking for something less quirky, there are other Rizal films. Some adapt his books, while others are based on his life. This was the fourth in four years about him, after one with Albert Martinez in 1997, another with Cesar Montano in 1998 and a third with Gardo Versoza in 1999.
Overall, the film didn't quite grab me. Sorry. I'm a bad person, but it didn't. I didn't hate it, but I wasn't always as gripped as I might have been by the motives behind a possible last-minute conversion to Catholicism or marriage laws in the 19th-century Spanish Empire. However I admire its style and its energy in tackling such potentially dusty topics, while I think I'd get much more out of it if I read up on Rizal before diving back in for a rewatch. I can see that it's good. It just helps to know something of its chosen sphere of Philippine history before watching it.