ishmael bernal’s dream film on the luna brothers

on this the national artist’s 77th birthday, as the film Heneral Luna continues to drive a rare national conversation on philippine history and heroes, here are some notes of jorge arago on a film that ishmael, until his last days, dreamed of doing.

Progress was slow on [Bernal’s] research for a film about a Filipino painter by the name of Juan Luna, whose brother Antonio, a general, was assassinated a hundred years ago last June, when Filipinos were somewhere between revolution and war. The date is important for us, for that was when the amerasia in our show-biz hearts got started. Admiral George Dewey had brought a cameraman along and I reckon that he must have gotten some interesting footage — of the Spanish clergy begging the Yanks to spare the noble and ever loyal city that today is a golf course; of the indios curiousos who crowded the shoreline of Manila Bay and for whom Admiral Dewey had his band play La Paloma and other Hispanic turns towards late afternoon while he sipped tea in the tropical heat which must have been intolerable for men in uniform; of the fury (in the absence of a sound-camera) of a predetermined battle with remnants of the Spanish armada, in which Admiral Dewey’s superior fleet suffered one casualty and that as a direct result of the humidity.

… The story of the Luna brothers is the stuff of pure cinema and lies at the very roots of our little explored Amerasian amnesia.

… Juan Luna painted in the classicist style of a time when the impressionist movement was catching on; he killed his Creole wife with the precision of a pointilist and his mother-in-law (who paid for half the rent on their Paris villa) with the inclusiveness of a socialist realist. It was also considered a sensational crime of passion triggered – as the French judiciary would conclude after a trial in which a French servant was star-witness – by culturally conditioned insanity, which was apparently the first time the idea was bandied around. The culture bit is interesting. It was no sub-culture, as we frequently refer to the world of drug-dependents; no “third world”, as the technocrats over there have gotten into the habit of referring to us island-dwellers and other infinitesimals over here.

At any rate, the fellow was acquitted and, after a reclusive period when even Jose Rizal – poet, physician and propagandist of his time and a hero of ours – hesitated to communicate with him and left him well enough alone, responded to a summons from Filipinos who had just successfully mounted a revolution against Spain but now in the face-saving transition confronted foe-and-ally alike in the visiting forces of America. Luna accepted the diplomat’s job of advocating independence from the lion in his den. He was in Washington when he learned that his younger brother Antonio, hypertensive commanding general of the self-same Filipino revolutionists had been assassinated by another faction of patriots.

… Juan Luna died in Hongkong enroute to Manila. He came home to be with the dead. An uncle of the painter’s wife is a most distinguisHed scholar in Philippine history who travelled with the Americans at the turn of the century, monitoring and auditioning a variety of talents (for an ongoing shoot of the New Governmental Organization) in the course of a pacification campaign that did not bother to look into the preceding Spanish sequence and wouldn’t teach Americans enough to enable them to avoid Viet Nam. He’s supposed to have said, according to one probably apocryphal anecdote, that he understood why some men would want to kill unfaithful wives but why a dead-shot like Juan should include his mother-in-law was perplexing.