The name Hermano Puli is familiar to me as a historical figure as a revolutionary against Spanish rule. However, honestly, he was a mere trivial footnote for me. I do not exactly recall who he was, or what he did. I look forward to seeing films like this to learn more about these less prominent personalities in history.
In addition, this film was chosen as the closing film of the recently concluded Cinemalaya film festival. It was also chosen as one of the candidates for the coveted Philippine representative to be sent for Oscar consideration. These factors amped up my curiosity to see this film during its commercial run this week.
Apolinario de la Cruz, a.k.a. Hermano Puli, was only 18 years old when he founded the Confradia de San Jose in their hometown of Lukban in the province of Tayabas in 1832. It was an organization of Filipino Catholics who regularly met and listened to Hermano Puli as he preached about Bible-based values. By 1841, with this group's growing popularity among its all-Filipino membership, Spanish authorities suspected sedition and insurgency, and banned it. When Hermano Puli and comrades fought back, the Spaniards resorted to violence to totally dismantle it.
The intentions of the production may have been noble, but the final product turned out weak. I thought the main weakness of the film lay on the uninspiring lead performance turned in by Aljur Abrenica as Hermano Puli. He tried very hard to look and act "good" such that it turned out really unconvincing and hammy. Abrenica's Hermano Puli felt like a patronizing charlatan with his put-on air of holiness, which was unfortunate. In big scenes when the Hermano was rallying his people into action at Isabang on Mt. Banahaw, or even in that simple scene when Puli cried when he was told about his younger brother's death, Abrenica failed to connect with any sincerity.
There were scenes that show Hermano Puli in a bad light. When he was in Manila, he requested for Lina (Louise de los Reyes), a barrio lass who obviously has a crush on him, to go to Manila and do his laundry. He rebuked his cuidado (or caretaker) Octavio San Jorge (Enzo Pineda) with harsh words in a letter from Manila after the former was arrested and whipped. When they captured a local Spanish alcalde mayor, the Hermano allowed his lieutenant Apolonio Juan de la Cruz (Vin Abrenica) to violently dispose of the official as the latter wished. The scene where the Hermano was distributing amulets may have been based on fact, but the way it was shown onscreen was too sudden and unreasonable. His turn to superstition went unexplained.
In addition, there was the portrayal of all the Spanish officials and friars as comical caricatures of pure colonial evil. Markki Stroem played Col. Joaquin Juet as a livid raving madman, demonic eyes, demonic laughter and all. Kiko Matos played alcalde mayor Joaquin Ortega as a lisping and inept fool, as did the actor who played the effeminate gobernadorcillo. The very fake-looking tonsure hairstyle of the friars looked hilarious. I am not sure if the humor in these scenes were intentional on the director's part to liven things up, but for me they felt uncomfortably out of place in a film like this.
It was interesting to learn about these lesser known events in Philippine history, telling in more detail about what could be dismissed in a history textbook in a single sentence. However despite being concise, this film by Gil Portes (who once won Best Director for "Andrea" back in the 1990 MMFF) felt slow and flat. It is not the religious subject that made it tedious, as "Felix Manalo" (with a charismatic Dennis Trillo in the lead) was able to be engaging despite its length. The way this film projected Hermano Puli did not even feel favorable to his memory. Aside from a few memorable lines, it did not inspire above and beyond telling the basic historical information. 4/10.