×

Venice Film Review: ‘The Kingmaker’

Lauren Greenfield proves the perfect person to infiltrate Imelda Marcos’ psyche, revealing the former Filipino first lady's delusions of grandeur to the broader world.

With:
Imelda Marcos, Corazon Aquino, Leni Robredo

Running time: 101 MIN.

“Perception is real, and the truth is not,” announces Imelda Marcos in “The Kingmaker,” a jaw-dropping documentary in which director Lauren Greenfield exposes just how effective the wounded peacock has been in reshaping her status. Once world-famous for her shoe collection, Imelda benefited enormously from husband Ferdinand’s two-decade dictatorship over the of the Philippines, until being forced to flee to Hawaii in 1986. Now, back from exile, the disgraced former first lady is fully invested in reclaiming her family’s position atop a country whose coffers they once pillaged, attempting to bend democracy and boost her son, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., to power.

Marcos’ print-the-legend philosophy has particular resonance in a post-truth world, although such sinister undertones sneak up on audiences in a movie that begins, innocently enough, as the latest of Greenfield’s astonishing portraits of wealth run amok. Even as far away as the Philippines, the photographer can’t escape glaring reminders of American absurdity — as when the recent Filipino elections seem to echo the United States’ surreal 2016 presidential ballot, which pitted a former first lady against a populist plutocrat. Bizarrely, Marcos embodies both of those personae in a single public figure, and though the perception she’s creating is that of a magnanimous matriarch, Greenfield finds the truth (there’s that word) to be far more complicated.

In light of the recurring themes of Greenfield’s oeuvre — decades spent documenting the lifestyles of the filthy rich and wannabe famous, à la “The Queen of Versailles” and “Generation Wealth” — it’s no wonder that Marcos would be amenable to being immortalized by such a high-profile photographer. What Greenfield’s subjects never seem to grasp is how her work manages to flatter them, captured in all their blinged-out excess, while striking outsiders as satirical and shocking. Certainly, Marcos is image-conscious enough to recognize that granting Greenfield such access could backfire in a big way. Still, her vanity and ambition get the better of her, resulting in the juiciest insider look at a corrupt world leader since Barbet Schroeder’s “General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait.”

From the outset, Greenfield and editor Per K. Kirkegaard include shots of Imelda getting her makeup done, or asking, “How’s my tummy? Does it look big?” before sitting for one of the interviews in which she strategically attempts to reshape and control her own narrative. Of course, such candid details can give a false illusion of objectivity, though Greenfield doesn’t take her subject at face value, instead going the extra distance to interview her political detractors and supply the historical context the Marcos clan is actively trying to rewrite — the effects of which can be witnessed in elementary schools, where Ferdinand Marcos’ nearly decade-long period of martial law is now being recast as a rosier time than it was.

From Imelda’s POV, the Philippines have gone downhill since her family was in charge. “Before, during my time, there were no beggars,” she claims, happy to be filmed as she hands out crisp bank notes to street children and cancer patients. But where did this personal fortune she now shares come from? And how deep does such generosity really go? The Marcos family stands accused of looting anywhere from $5 billion to $10 billion from the country, and though many of their treasures were confiscated by the Presidential Commission on Good Government (an entity established by Marcos successor Corazon Aquino), they’ve stashed a number of valuable artworks that can be sold whenever they need an influx of cash.

Interweaving the photographer’s lurid, color-saturated look at Imelda today with archival footage, the stranger-than-fiction documentary reminds that small-town girl Imelda Trinidad Romualdez was whisked into this life after competing in the Miss Manila beauty pageant, which caught the attention of young politician Ferdinand Marcos. They married after an 11-day courtship, and though Imelda was instrumental in his political rise, the pressure was too much to bear, leading to a near breakdown.

Imelda speaks candidly of this time and the change of outlook that led her to embrace her position as the country’s most high-profile woman — a trophy wife whom Ferdinand sent around the world while he cheated on her back home. Greenfield includes one of the damning tapes, in which actress Dovie Beams recorded her affair with the president, and checks in with several of Imelda’s pet projects, including the so-called Bridge of Love and a whimsical wild-animal preserve that hinged on the eviction of Calauit Island’s human population. At the time of her “reign,” Imelda met many world leaders, among them Chairman Mao and Saddam Hussein, whom she claims to have asked point-blank, “What’s your problem?”

If only diplomacy were so simple. What does appear easy, perhaps even alarmingly so, is the path back to power. After a few years in exile — following the death of Ferdinand, who’d been quite ill during his final stretch in office — the Marcoses found it safe to return, eventually repatriating the dictator’s corpse. With her big hair and elegant dresses (we never glimpse the all-important shoes on her feet), Imelda may look the part of the sweet Marcos grandmother, but she can also play the tough “Narcos” godmother, pulling strings from behind the scenes.

Greenfield follows Marcos on the campaign trail for her latest scheme: to get her son Bongbong elected as vice president, which would clear the way for him to succeed the dastardly Rodrigo Duterte. This last chapter is the most chilling, as it finds a desperate country naive enough to believe the false narrative the Marcoses are selling — or buying, as the case seems to be. Meanwhile, Duterte appears to be a tool in their reascension; the new president’s already horrific legacy can be seen in a series of bloody street shootings, captured by local still photographers and Greenfield’s cameras.

In the end, “The Kingmaker” leaves it to audiences to untangle the veracity of Imelda’s own myth-building. But it’s impossible to ignore what the film says about the perils of political dynasties, which audiences have back in America as well, between the Kennedys, the Bushes, the Clintons and now the Trumps. Even those with the best intentions can be corrupted, leveraging their ambitious wives and idiot sons to reclaim the power they believe to be rightfully theirs.

Popular on Variety

Venice Film Review: 'The Kingmaker'

Reviewed at Raleigh Studios, Aug. 21, 2019. (In Venice, Telluride, Toronto film festivals.) Running time 101 MIN.

Production: A Showtime release of a Showtime Documentary Films presentation of an Evergreen Pictures production, in association with Artemis Rising, Bloomberg, Candescent Films, Impact Partners, Secret Sauce Media, in co-production with Danish Documentary. Producers: Frank Evers, Lauren Greenfield. Co-producer: Jennifer Kobzik. Executive producers: R.J. Cutler, Geralyn Dreyfous, Julie Parker Benello, Dan Cogan, Bill Haney, Lilly Hartley, Patricia Lambrecht, Nion McEvoy, Regina K. Scully, Jamie Wolf, Vinnie Malhotra. Co-executive producers: Allison Amon, Stephanie DeVaan, Lisa Mehling, David Paradice, Jenny Raskin, Lynda Weinman.

Crew: Director, writer: Lauren Greefield. Camera (color, HD): Lars Skree, Shana Hagan. Editor: Per K. Kirkegaard. Music: Jocelyn Pook.

With: Imelda Marcos, Corazon Aquino, Leni Robredo, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., Imee Marcos, Andros Marcos, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino, Andy Bautista, Rodrigo Duterte, Pete Lacaba, Tony Parkinson, May Rodriguez, Beth Day Romulo, Loretta Rosales, Remedios Tradio, Frank Yturria, Mary Yturria. (English, Filipino dialogue)

More Film

  • Abominable

    Malaysia Orders Cuts to 'Abominable' Over Controversial Map Scene

    Malaysia has ordered cuts to the U.S.-Chinese animated feature “Abominable,” which includes a scene involving a map that portrays China’s contested territorial claims in the South China Sea. The map scene has already caused the film to be banned in Vietnam. The Philippines foreign minister this week called for “Abominable” to be boycotted. The film [...]

  • Kung Fu Panda 3

    Universal's Beijing Resort to Partner With Alibaba on Digitization

    Amid fierce controversy about the leverage China has over U.S. entertainment firms with significant mainland operations, Universal Beijing Resort and Alibaba announced a strategic partnership Thursday to digitize the forthcoming theme park in China’s capital. Facial recognition and the use of big data will be the norm at the new resort, which will use an [...]

  • They Shall Not Grow Old restoration

    Peter Jackson Documentary 'They Shall Not Grow Old' Nabs Limited China Release

    The Peter Jackson produced and directed World War I documentary “They Shall Not Grow Old” will hit Chinese theaters on November 11. Though it will roll out nationwide, it will do so via the China’s National Arthouse Alliance, which has limited screens. The 2018 documentary puts together interviews with WWI veterans and more than 100-year-old [...]

  • Zombieland Double Tap

    'Zombieland: Double Tap' Hopes to Recapture Raunchy Zombie Magic, 10 Years Later

    Audiences may have a few questions about the sequel to 2009’s hit “Zombieland,” which opens Friday. Why did it take 10 years to make a second one, after the first grossed $102.4 million worldwide on a $23 million budget, making it the third-biggest zombie movie of all time (second-biggest if you don’t count “Hotel Transylvania,” [...]

  • AMC TheatresShop signs, Los Angeles, America

    AMC Theatres Accused of Firing VP Who Complained of Gender Pay Gap

    A former vice president at AMC Theatres filed a federal lawsuit on Wednesday, accusing the company of firing her after she complained that she was paid far less than her male peers. Tonya Mangels, who was vice president of product marketing, said that in March 2018 her supervisor inadvertently sent her a spreadsheet that included [...]

  • Sir Elton John poses for photographers

    Elton John Calls 'Lion King' Remake a 'Huge Disappointment'

    Elton John isn’t feeling the love for Disney’s latest live-action remake. In an interview with GQ U.K., the legendary musician criticized Disney’s remake of “The Lion King,” citing the film’s music as a “huge disappointment.” “The new version of The Lion King was a huge disappointment to me, because I believe they messed the music [...]

  • Fiddlin'

    Film Review: 'Fiddlin''

    Not many forms of music have “old-” actually built into their name as a prefix. So it’s a given that the practitioners of the 200-year-old genre known as “old-time music” will wear their antiquity proudly in “Fiddlin’,” a documentary set in and around the 80th annual Old Fiddler’s Convention in Galax, Va. What may not [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content