The soldiers of the siege of Baler, upon their return to Barcelona
Baler wasn’t bad. But it wasn’t good either.
The core of the movie was a very simple story – a love affair between Jericho Rosales’ half-blood Spanish soldier and Anne Curtis’ native miss (whose father – Philip Salvador – happened to be a particularly bitter freedom-fighter). This romance was set against the last days of Spanish power in the Philippines when the garrison at Baler – including ROsales’ character – was forced to hole-up in the local church for almost a year, surrounded by the well-armed local militia. Under these trying circumstances, the two leads keep the faith as best they can, against all odds.
And that was pretty much it.
Despite its pretensions at being a period historical romance, the entire movie came off almost as blandly as though it were journalistic, rather than dramatic.
The crux of the movie should have been the aching of the two lovers; more specifically, Curtis’ defiance of her father and Rosales’ ultimate decision to defy his Commander – and by extension his own dreams of eventually seeing his father – in order to finally be with his love.
Unfortunately, Instead of exploring the complex dynamics of such a situation, the movie seemed pre-occupied with explaining why the siege lasted so long. It was more like a history lesson poorly told more than the devastating love story it could have been.
Those clumsy fake news reels didn’t help either.
Individual performances by the supporting cast were invariably disappointing, with the exception of Rio Locsin who turned in a very subtle performance that, at times, was fairly moving. But her character was really more of a place holder than anything else, leading to her being criminally absent for most of the movie.
Leo Martinez faltered early on when it seemed like he had trouble wiping that perpetual smirk off his face and seemed in constant danger of slipping into the Batangueno accent he has prolly trademarked by now.
Joel Torre – like Christopher de Leon – reminds me of Charlton Heston. The same stature (well, relatively anyway), held in the same esteem by colleagues, and possessed of a very limited range of facial expressions. Thankfully, he had such a small part that he fell pretty much below the radar most of the time.
The pretty boys – Baron Geisler, Bernard Palanca, and that bald Eigenmann – were all … earnest in their portrayals, but their command of the language that was supposed to be their mother tongue simply got in the way of their credibility.
Jao Mapa on the other hand was an annoying scene stealer in one of the pivotal moments of the movie. He reminded me of a bit player in a high-school production – striving to have his own interactions with other actors in the background while momentous events unfold in the foreground.
Nikki Bacolod stood out for being pretty, but for little else; and Anne Curtis’ character’s brother looked so anemic it was hard to generate any sympathy for the wimp.
The main characters
The main characters didn’t fare much better. Philip Salvador may have lost alot of his stillness but it’s pretty safe to say he hasn’t lost his primal scream chops. Did he deserve best supporting actor? Considering the field he was playing against, it was an easy call to make. Despite the superficiality of his portrayal, he still showed more depth than most of the other contenders.
Rosales seemed completely clueless about why the locals should hate him. This would have been acceptable if the movie had taken pains to explore in greater depth why he was serving the Spaniards, but it never did. Instead, it had Rosales mouthing pap about how the colonial overlords only wanted order.
Watching Curtis’ award-winning performance was like watching Dyosa without the fantastical transformations. I like her and I have seen her serve up some serious emotion. But in this movie, she felt like an ingenue in search of the comforting smallness of the boob-tube.
The use of history
The use of history in a movie can be easily classified into two broad categories: as the story itself, or as a conceptual framework for the real story.
Baler unwisely tried to use history in both ways and ended up doing justice to neither point of view.
Obviously, Baler ought to have emphasised the use of history as a background against which the love story unfolds. If this had been the case, then historical notes should have been treated like asides but always in relation to the main story. As it turned out, however, Baler got hung up on historical details that did not advance the story beyond providing ever more justification for the length of the siege.
Take that scene, for instance, where Salvador and his cronies are gossiping about the Quezons. What did that contribute to the story? Nothing. They never followed up on it, and all that talk about Manuel being a freedom fighter didn’t impact at all on later events.
And then there was that pseudo intellectual discussion involving Martinez about the cost of freedom. That didn’t do diddly squat either.
Not that the movie got all the historical details right, apparently. While not exactly revisionist, Baler certainly glossed over a few details like how the siege was apparently NOT due to some shrewd psywar tactic hatched by the local militia but the militia’s inability to get the job done.
Also very distracting
Also very distracting were the scenes where the local militia gloated over the soldier’s gift of Jerez brandy and cuban cigars. Those local captains and lieutenants looked for all the world like modern day politicians divvying up the spoils. For a moment there, I imagined that must’ve been the picture Jun Lozada was trying to paint when he testified at the Senate.
And what was up with those disintegrating uniforms? They were holed up in church, not some deserted island. The soldiers uniforms couldn’t have possibly ended up so tattered after just a year in-doors! Filthy, prolly. But with no indication of any laundry being done, those uniforms shouldn’t have shown the wear and tear they eventually did.
At the end
At the end, despite failing to deliver on the promise of a love story, the movie did succeed in one respect: It didn’t feel like a two-hour long movie. You left it feeling that you’d actually suffered through all 330 plus days of the siege.