This is a film review of Salvador Calvo’s 1898: Los Últimos de Filipinas.
1898: Los Últimos de Filipinas (1898: Our Last Men in the Philippines) is a dramatic war movie depicting Spain’s surrender of the last piece of land it held in the Philippines, after almost four hundred years of lording it over in the Pearl of the Orient.
Known as the Siege of Baler, from June 30, 1898 to June 2, 1899, there was a standoff between the 50-strong Spanish force, majority of whom were young and inexperienced, that was trapped inside a fortified church in Baler, Aurora, and the hundreds of Filipino soldiers fighting under the banner of KKK waiting outside for them, just 200 meters away from the church door. For 337 days, the Spanish soldiers weathered gunfights, the oppressive tropical heat, dwindling supply of food, some of which was contaminated, and diseases like malaria and beriberi. In order to survive, they resorted to stealing food from their enemies and at one point, eating the dead (not a person). Unbeknownst to them, half of the time they were confined in the hot and hostile territory, they were fighting a lost cause. With the signing of Treaty of Paris, Spain relinquished the Philippines to the Americans for $20 million on December 10, 1898, making the Siege of Baler inconsequential.
1898: Los Últimos de Filipinas is an epic film, from the sweeping verdant landscapes to the actors involved.
1898: Los Últimos de Filipinas may not have the bursting colors and picture-perfect sunsets of La Isla Mínima (Marshland), but it is also a visual feast. It is a gorgeous film that captures the magnificence of a secluded Baler. Gazing at the aerial views of Equatorial Guinea that takes the place of Baler, the dense forest choked by towering trees and the cascading falls is not only enjoyable but also almost spiritual. The scene where the soldiers traverse the body of water flanked by foliage is breathtaking.
Aside from the wondrous cinematography, 1898: Los Últimos de Filipinas boasts of a gripping story, albeit one with minor historical inaccuracies. The historical part of the film is something predictable because it is set in stone. However, the individual stories of the characters involved are riveting.
Lieutenant Martín Cerezo (Luis Tosar) of the 2nd Ranger Battalion, as the de facto leader of the soldiers, is the heart and soul of the film. His backstory, having no wife and child to go back to in Spain and a soldier not looking for glory in war, gives his decisions throughout the film credence. Also, his unwavering loyalty to Spain is unquestionable and consistent. Contrast these positive traits to the morally questionable, though legally correct, actions he takes in the latter part of the film. The emotional and psychological toll of the siege comes crashing down when Cerezo reads a vital announcement in a newspaper. The grief and relief in the face of Cerezo are worth a Goya award. I have watched many films of Tosar, and I know what he is capable of. I have written that when Tosar acts, every pore in his body acts, too. This time, even his moustache acts at will. He is so good that his body parts should have separate credits in his films.
Sergeant Jimeno (Javier Gutiérrez) is the antithesis of Lieutenant Cerezo. Where Cerezo is level-headed and by the law, Jimeno is temperamental and shoot-now-think later kind of officer. Despite his excessive viciousness towards the Filipinos, Jimeno’s demeanor is understandable as the only survivor of the massacre perpetrated by the locals. This same massacre is the reason why Cerezo’s troops are in Baler. Despite the differences of Cerezo and Jimeno, they find a common ground once push comes to shove, and their partnership carries the film for the most part. The chemistry between Tosar and Gutiérrez is evident, which is not surprising because they worked in El Desconocido together. Tosar is an acting god, but for me Gutiérrez is love. He has perfected the villain roles to a T but his villains are not from the same mold. His Jimeno is badass, from his battle scars to the way he stares down his friends and foes alike. He makes being bad very good.
Young soldier Carlos (Álvaro Cervantes) is more of an artist and a thinker than a soldier. While his colleagues fire arms, he holds a paintbrush to make the church beautiful. He spends his nights getting high on opium with Fray Carmelo (Karra Elejalde), a priest who is too modern for his time, and the rest of his waking hours straddling the fence of deserting his group or not and questioning his superiors’ resolve. He is a good character, but I personally find him weak and boring. It must be the ideal youthfulness in him that I do not identify with anymore that makes him less appealing. On the upside, Cervantes has expressive eyes that look like on the brink of crying all the time. His detox scene is one of the highlights of film, and he holds his own against acting heavyweights Tosar and Gutiérrez.
Other notable Spanish soldiers are Doctor Vigil (Carlos Hipólito), who finds his hands busy with the sick and the injured, more of the former than the latter, and is the only officer who maintains his hands clean until the end, Captain Enrique de las Morenas (Eduard Fernández), the seemingly passive leader of the group who brings his high-maintenance dog to the battlefield, and Juan (Patrick Criado), a young soldier who deserts the church and the miserable within to side with the Filipino revolutionaries. I have watched Criado in Mar de Plástico, and his role in 1898: Los Últimos de Filipinas is a demonstration of his acting prowess. He uses what limited screen time he has to display apathy, shock, betrayal, surprise, and genuine happiness.
For the Filipinos side, there is Teresa (Alexadra Masangkay), the town harlot with the voice of an angel and a revolutionary brother. I understand that Teresa gets paid for sex, but I am not sure if Filipino women in 1898 wore their clothes the way she does in the film, which leaves little or nothing to the imagination, or if they have sexual intercourse in front of the whole town. Having said these, Masangkay is very pretty. There is also a Commander Luna Novicio (Raymond Bagatsing), the leader of the local revolutionaries. He reclines on his chair like Bacchus and is half naked half the time he is onscreen, but he is a reasonable military man. Bagatsing shines in the two scenes he is in.
Commander Luna says it true, when he tells Carlos that the Spanish have, “no hay imperio, ni ejercito, ni gloria que defender” (there is no empire, no army, no glory to defend). After almost four centuries, the men of Commander Luna give Cerezo and the Spanish a guard of honor as the latter bid adieu to the Pearl of the Orient. As they walk among the Filipinos, the Spanish look up the sky, maybe asking where God had been all the time they were sequestered inside His home of worship.
Today is the 119th Philippine Independence Day from Spain.
Notes at the end of the film:
– El sitio de Baler terminó el 2 de junio de 1899, tras 337 días de asedio. Murieron 17 soldados españoles y casi 700 filipinos. (The siege of Baler ended on June 2, 1899, after 337 days. 17 Spanish soldiers died and almost 700 Filipinos.)
– La caída de Baler marcó la desaparición de uno de los mayores imperios que ha conocido el mundo y provocó en España una tragedia nacional. (The fall of Baler signaled the end of one of the greatest empires the world has ever known and it caused a national tragedy in Spain.)
– De los supervivientes, tan solo Martín Cerezo recibió la Cruz Laureada, máxima distinción militar. (Of the survivors, only Martín Cerezo received the Laureate Cross, the highest military distinction.)
– A pesar del final de la guerra, en Filipinas quedaron más de nueve mil españoles abandonados a su suerte: soldados, curas, funcionarios y desertores que permanecieron hasta bien entrado el siglo XIX. (Despite the end of the war, 9000 other Spaniards remained in the Philippines, left to their fate: soldiers, priests, civil servants, and deserters who stayed until well into the 20th century.)
The Philippine premier of 1898: Los Últimos de Filipinas (1898: Our Last Men in the Philippines) will be on June 29, 2017 in Baler, Aurora. For more information, please visit http://manila.cervantes.es or www.facebook.com/InstitutoCervantesManila.
- Where did those big and succulent oranges come from?
- Captain de la Morenas’ dog, Ron (?), is too cute for words.
- When someone says, that “this little Virgin is lucky”, you just know that he will lose that image of Mary and he will die.
- I am writing this here, what role can Luis Tosar not give justice to? He has been an inmate (Celda 211), a creep (Mientras Duermes), a bank robber (Cien Años de Perdón), and a film producer who grew a conscience (También la Lluvia), and these are just at the top of my head. The guy is amazing!