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REVIEW: Made in Malacañang: Reinventing Marcos

NEW JERSEY (MindaNews / 17 August) — As early as I can remember, I’ve never shied away from “bad” people. One summer afternoon when I was 7 or 8 years old, my new friends and I followed a narrow footpath through the forest at the edge of the village where my grandparents lived. It was an age and a time of magic and superstitions, when we believed spirits roamed in the shadows and elves lived in anthills, and dark magic played tricks on your eyes to get you lost, but you could undo the trick and find your way again just by wearing your shirt inside out.

In another village on the other side of the forest where the river met the sea, my friend had an aunt who lived with a group of women. I don’t remember much of them, anymore, but I remember they worked strange jobs at night. I don’t think they were prostitutes, but I remember there were whispers about them. We didn’t care, though. Whenever we were in their village, we’d stop by their house to take a nap and they always opened their doors for us. And when we woke, we’d have some soft drinks and some crackers in the kitchen, which was a kind of luxury, at the time, even now…somewhere.

For better or for worse, I have lost friends and opportunities because of my association with “bad” people, but I sincerely try to give others a fair chance because that’s what I want from others for myself. And that’s what I really tried to do when I watched Maid in Malacañang last night. 

I wish I could say I had fond memories of it like I had at the house of the strange women in my childhood. Aesthetically, the film is a poorly made, low budget eyesore with bad acting, unbearable dialogue, and strange, atrocious sound effects. It’s the presidential daughter, Imee Marcos’ vanity project about Imee Marcos with a supporting cast from the entire Marcos family and the Malacañangstaff setting the different contexts for Imee’s greatness. 

It’s part of a multi-generational rehabilitation project to rebuild and reinvent the Marcos legacy through alternative history. And according to Imee Marcos, Imee Marcos is one of the most amazing human beings no one ever knew. 

Imee was apparently the late dictator’s secret weapon, an overachieving multitasker who is simultaneously unsung heroine, martyr, and innocent victim of the people’s revolution that toppled the Marcos’ family in 1986. In fact, the movie title, Maid in Malacañang, which seems to pay tribute to the Marcos family’s servants, once again, merely echoes a recurring theme throughout the movie: the unacknowledged greatness and sacrifice of Imee who was, in the words of Imee’s father, the true and best “maid” in Malacañang

So, even the poor maids who served the Marcos family weren’t even nearly as good a maid as their multi-billionaire master, Imee. That’s how much Philippine history owes Imee.

Merely a few minutes into the movie opening, as the Marcos family deals with growing betrayals from top level former allies and a rapidly spreading revolution on the streets, the scene takes us into a surreal intelligence briefing. It isn’t from a military commander of the remaining government forces still loyal to the President. Instead, it’s delivered by Biday, a maid with a heavy accent typical of caricatures of maids in Filipino comedy. The entire tone – everything from her big exaggerated expressions to the accompanying sound effects – is setting up the scene for a punch line. It’s as if a comedian had somehow fallen in a worm hole and exited at a tense, top level government meeting after a catastrophic mass shooting. It is weirdly and inappropriately out of place. but it is the first foreshadowing of the many erratic bipolar episodes that would take us on a two-hour mind-bending identity crisis. 

Maid in Malacañang is a political variety show that can’t decide whether it’s a comedy or a true-to-life historical drama. It is unsure how to tell the story, but it is unwavering in its purpose. The incoherent mishmash of inappropriate laughter one moment, and then fear, anger, and desperation the next, as the rebellion inches closer to home and the family wonders where the next meal or the next assassination attempt would come from, all intersect into one common message: the divinity of the Marcos family. 

It’s great to see movies that explore the humanity of villains who, like every human being, are complex. No one is evil every second, every minute, every hour, every day. But the movie’s ambition goes far beyond humanizing the Marcoses. It goes for canonization of the Marcoses as the first family in history to be saints. And in that attempt, it inadvertently reduces the Marcoses back to one-dimensional characters, only instead of a family of villains, they are now a family of saints with the former President, Ferdinand, just like Jesus Christ, sacrificing himself and forgiving the sins of the people who repaid his love by exiling him and his family to Hawaii, which is essentially, like the crucifixion, if you don’t think about it. 

But again, sticking with the theme of divinity here, Ferdinand’s only son, Bongbong, would come back to the Philippines and fulfill his father’s promise of everlasting life for the Filipinos. It was even foretold, as the movie suggests, by zooming in on the sole of a white, sparkling, crystal studded stiletto, unexplainably sitting on the Marcos’s matrimonial bed where all the magic happens. It’s one of Imelda’s collection of over 3,000 pairs of luxury shoes. like a magic phrase, “IMR 2022” is emblazoned on the bottom of the shoe. Get it? 

In the pivotal scene, a young Bongbong Marcos promises her mother grieving at their eventual exile to the island paradise of Hawaii that the family would be back to Malacañang, someday.

Well, what else happened in 2022? Bongbong was inaugurated as President of the Philippines.  Just like the Old Testament, Imelda’s shoes actually foretold the second coming of the Marcoses. 

Taken on its own, without the encumbrances of things that get in the way of good entertainment, such as politics…or facts, the Marcos family in the movie is very likeable. But that’s the problem: facts. The movie has such an unrealistic dreamlike quality to it that at any moment you almost expect one of the paintings of Imelda would come to life and start singing. The dialogues are so unnaturally elegant. And they are long and pedantic – like gospels. And that’s because they are. They aren’t really meant for a movie, but for a campaign rally. They are meant to preemptively answer the viewer’s question and to bring glory to the Marcoses name. 

Conversations in movies are typically short, 10 to 20 second exchanges. But Maid in Malacañang isn’t a typical movie. It has actually very little dialogues. What it has a lot of are long monologues lasting for minutes. They are carefully choreographed political speeches disguised as common dialogues, with the “exchange” consisting of a short question from an extra in the background that merely serves to disguise the speech. The conversation isn’t even really between the characters in the movie, but between the characters and its audience. The movie is really speaking directly to you. That’s how propaganda works. 

Not a single character in the movie is fully developed. Every character lacks complexity – even Imee. And they are all interchangeable drones reciting a kind of prayer glorifying one or all of the Marcoses and somehow always go back to Imee. And where they show what seems like a conflict or a hint of a character’s complexity, it is all once again for the purpose of highlighting the Marcos’ virtue. In this regard, the film is pornographic. Each supposed chapter in the movie is stripped of the meandering doubts and unresolved conflicts of real human beings. 

To the extent that there are actual emotions in every chapter, the emotions are a standalone, high-speed train to the same destination, the same climax that ultimately reveal the same thing: the Marcoses are awesome and you don’t even know how lucky you are to have lived under their dictatorship.

Movie director Darryl Yap, had a rare opportunity to take a dive into the hearts and minds of the Marcos family which, after decades at the very top of the Philippine political foodchain, is suddenly grappling with the impending eventuality of exile, for once. What was it like for the invincible to cower in fear? For Ferdinand and Imelda who, just before the revolution, seemed to command even the impossible…who seemed they could bend reality and even the laws of arithmetic, at will…who could achieve the incredible feat of winning every election in a landslide…to suddenly find themselves increasingly alone and abandoned? 

What was it like for the people who saw and were touched by the tender side of the Marcoses that they were willing to stand by him before a nation in revolt? But instead, Yap’s vision for one of the most important moments in Philippine history is to turn the memory of the revolution into a poorly-written, poorly acted, disjointed, Frankenstein of a movie that attempts to be both a comedy and a drama but ends up neither. With a commitment that approaches fanaticism, Yap, unfortunately, chose to trivialize those who loved and continue to love the Marcoses by turning their loyalty into a comic relief in a narrative already filled with absurdities. 

The poetic liberties Yap took to create the persistent sense of being in the grip of a hallucination and a nervous breakdown puts the historicity of the entire effort into question. Is anything in the movie even true, at all? Yap’s experiment in mixing fact and delusion is extremely ill-advised for a serious subject. Or maybe that was the intent, all along. The strength of propaganda lies in the impossibility of discerning fact from fiction. Perhaps, the film was never meant to be taken seriously.

It may be obvious that Yap is mocking non-believers outside the cult built around the Marcoses. But it’s also equally possible he is actually subtly mocking the Marcoses by the total suspension of disbelief  Yap requires to sit through his nearly two-hour bipolar mythology. He does a complete disservice even to the Marcoses by turning them into unbelievable single-celled deities instead of the complex human beings they are who, like everyone else, find themselves in a constant tug of war with their internal angels and demons.

When Ferdinand asks if he is a good person, Yap, again, drops the ball and fails to capture an authentic moment of self-reflection by a man accused of heinous crimes against humanity. It’s a question that requires a descent into the dark depths of the soul, one that, perhaps, is unanswerable. Instead, Yap takes that as another bullet point to be resolved by a cinematic cliche that characterizes every telenovela.

The scene is contrived and artificial, with Ferdinand alone in the library, doing nothing, sitting on a lone chair with no desk to obscure a camera shot. Ferdinand looks as if he’s just waiting for a cinematic opportunity for daughter, Irene, to come in, and, finding no other chair in the room, be forced to sit on the floor, by his feet. It’s a perfect Kodak moment for Ferdinand to ask if he is a good person. But the question is rhetorical, of course. Yap already knows the answer, or at least he already knows what the answer should be. Leaving the question open-ended would have injected a dose of human realism that’s absent from the movie. But Maid in Malacañang is not realistic. It’s a fantasy film. And even more, it’s a profession of faith in film format. So the question has to be answered with the certitude of faith. Yes, Ferdinand was the modern messiah rejected by his own people. 

By overplaying the Marcos’ virtues through the oversimplification of their personal struggles into a series of lectures that leave no doubt about the supposed unappreciated purity of the Marcos heart, Yap has inadvertently placed the Marcoses beyond reach and into the distant realm of the gods. This is ultimately the film’s biggest failure. By denying his characters any discernibly human flaws, Yap turned them all into figments of the imagination. Yap’s Ferdinand and Imelda have the unwavering calm of a marble statue in the face of a storm or the icy cold remorselessness of a sociopath, which is, at least, believable. Indeed, the only time Imelda showed emotions that came close to a normal human being was in an odd scene Yap chose to show of Imelda walking mournfully through a closetful of shoes, as if to say one final goodbye to children she soon had to leave behind. That, and when she was lying on her bed, crying next to the pair of clairvoyant stilettos that prophesied her return to Malacañang, the ones she brought out from the keypad vault inside her walk-in shoe closet where she kept the most precious of her precious shoes. 

I am only exaggerating very slightly. Yap did give the former dictator-saint one big flaw: Ferdinand had such a forgiving and trusting heart which made him vulnerable to betrayal by allies who would ultimately overthrow him. Yap is so committed to continuing Ferdinand Marcos’ mythology that despite all the incredible liberties Yap had already taken to create a Disneyfied retelling of the dictatorship and its end, Yap couldn’t imagine a version of Ferdinand that had any resemblance to the Ferdinand who actually existed in real life, or even, at least, a Ferdinand that was convincingly human. 

I really tried to watch Maid in Malacañang with as open a mind as I possibly could. I have even told my friends before and after the election, that if one listened to Bongbong in a vacuum, disconnected from all history, Bongbong actually comes across as a very likeable human being. But no sane person could watch “ Maid in Malacañang and pretend that it’s a serious historical movie or even a good work of fiction. If anything, the movie makes me feel dirty for even thinking Bongbong is likeable. 

As I watched the film, I had to constantly mutter under my breath, “just turn your shirt inside out,” hoping to dispel whatever dark magic tricks the movie may try on my mind.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Paolo Barredo of Davao City works as a computer programmer in New York. He is based in New Jersey where he watched ‘Maid in Malacanang’ on 15 August. He says he “really wasn’t expecting to write a negative review. I was hoping to see a good movie and learn a side of the Marcoses that I might not have known. Pero, I really felt that the neatness and simplicity of Yap’s black and white characters were themselves lies. There are no shades of gray in Yap’s retelling of the revolution. That, to me, was clear propaganda.”)

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