“Imelda” is a balanced, evenhanded film about a subject who has always managed to provoke intemperate reactions: Imelda Marcos, the former first lady of the Philippines. Adored by her legion of supporters in the manner of a second Eva Peron and scorned by as many others as an imperious dragon lady, the subject offers herself up to thorough scrutiny by documaker Ramona S. Diaz, with the not-unjustified confidence that her personal charm and persuasive powers will tilt the portrait more in her favor than might otherwise have been the case. Imelda haters will no doubt object that pic is something other than a outright ambush, while more casual observers will appreciate the more extended consideration given to this complex and not easily dismissed figure. Cable and docu-friendly tube outlets rep the main market.
“I’ve been very misunderstood,” Mrs. Marcos says for starters in reference to the public’s preoccupation with her shoes, although exactly what she expects people to think of a woman who took 3,000 pairs of shoes with her into political exile in Hawaii is never explained. What she has in mind, however, is the fixation on her misdeeds rather than what she views as her extensive good work, and the film dedicates itself to laying out the record on both counts.
Early footage is among the most interesting, in large measure due to its unfamiliarity. From a prominent family, Imelda lost her mother when she was 8, in 1938, but eventually became Miss Philippines. Thrust into the spotlight, the stunning beauty met Gen. MacArthur and was the first to sing the new Filipino national anthem composed on the spot by Irving Berlin.
Groomed to be a movie star, Imelda was courted by hundreds of the country’s most eligible bachelors when she met the young Ferdinand Marcos; claiming she was attracted first and foremost by his mind, she married him 11 days later. Surprisingly blunt about Marcos’ “roving eye” even early in the marriage, pic strongly suggests that it was by weathering pain and depression in these early years that Imelda eventually grew stronger and turned her attention to public life.
Her tenacity paid off in 1966, when Marcos was elected president, and it’s clear that Imelda was a major plus not only domestically but internationally. Smart, shrewd, elegant and beautiful, Imelda is shown gracing glittering occasions at the White House and elsewhere, and a fascinating section recounts her seemingly successful diplomatic visits with everyone from Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Mikhail Gorbachev to Moammar Gadhafi, Fidel Castro and Saddam Hussein. And then there was the time she sang to the pope.
But much seems to have changed after a would-be assassin tried to slice her up with a machete during a televised speech. “From then on, I decided to be totally selfless,” she claims, although opponents might change the final word of the sentence to “ruthless.”
Imelda stresses how she henceforth dedicated herself to “good-works projects” and even took on the Catholic Church on the issue of birth control, which she says resulted in a lowered national birth rate. But dissenters insist that her contributions were largely “cosmetic” and repped extravagant distractions from the realities of Marcos’ newly proclaimed martial law, which abolished both houses of the congress, put the courts under his control and set up “camps” for political dissidents.
The Marcoses fled their homeland in 1986 in the wake of a fraudulent election and withdrawal of U.S. support, and Ferdinand died in Hawaii three years later. Subsequent footage documents Imelda’s court battles in New York and her eventual return home, where she currently faces more than 150 legal cases.
Having granted Diaz seemingly unlimited access and interview time, Mrs. Marcos comes off alternately as cagey, pragmatic, open, manipulative, emotionally vulnerable and nobody’s fool. Befitting a woman who has lived her life since adolescence in the spotlight, she can’t be caught off guard and has an answer to any question, and her defenses of her husband and his regime are obviously filled with rationalizations and obfuscations.
Although it touches on the key events of the Marcos years and gives voice to the ruling family’s adversaries, pic doesn’t pretend to present a definitive account of its legacy. But with the qualification that the main perspective here is offered by Imelda herself, this workmanlike production does shed some interesting light on one of the more prominent female world figures of the last half of the past century.
Technical aspects are very good, and lenser Ferne Pearlstein won a Sundance cinematographer award for her work in 16mm, which was used rather than video so new material would match more smoothly with archival footage.