‘Imelda’: If the shoe fits, wear it

Times Staff Writer

“I’ve been very misunderstood,” says a pouty, wide-eyed Imelda Marcos at the outset of Ramona S. Diaz’s documentary “Imelda.” She’s decked out like a Braniff stewardess, touring the Philippine countryside in a chauffeured RV and distributing autographed photos of herself to the adoring crowd that gathers around her wherever she goes -- a plutocratic Celine Dion charged with human rights abuses.

In 1993, while working on a film about the toppling of the Marcos regime, Diaz obtained a 15-minute interview with Mrs. Marcos, widow of the deposed dictator Ferdinand Marcos, in her Manila apartment. She emerged five hours later with the start of a new film. Despite the former first lady’s extensive, some might say ecstatic, participation in “Imelda,” she recently sued to prevent the film from being shown in the Philippines. (She lost.) It’s just this sort of contradiction that shapes the character that emerges over an increasingly surreal two hours -- which is a long time to be caught without succor in the blitzkrieg of self-involvement that is Mrs. Marcos.

Imelda’s beef with “Imelda,” according to reports, is that it mocks her life; which is not strictly accurate -- she herself does a much better job of it than Diaz could do on her own. A figment of her own imagination, Marcos shares a seemingly endless store of rose-tinted memories, tortured rationalizations and increasingly unhinged theories linking leadership and governance to beauty, which she defines as “love made real.” A profligate spender who looted hundreds of millions of dollars, she returns again and again to the notion that when she lived well, she believed, “the people felt good.” Marcos’ monologues are intercut with interviews with journalists, diplomats and family members and friends, who interject with their own memories of manipulation, torture and political repression. We also see newsreel footage recalling everything from the Marcoses’ U.S.-sanctioned rise to power to their U.S.-approved fall from grace.

“Imelda” is not a political film in the vein of “Fahrenheit 9/11" or other recent political documentaries. It resists showing its hand, opting for a more oblique approach. Diaz has said that she hopes the film asks the right questions. But it seems, in this case, that the questions are leading -- and rightly so. Marcos is given all the tape she needs to hang herself. She presents her most cherished delusions at great length, whereupon they are swatted flat by more reliable sources.


At times, the contradictions between what Marcos says and what is clearly the reality can be poignant. In one sequence, Marcos takes the camera crew on a tour of her presidential home, comes upon her and her late husband’s separate bedrooms, and says disbelievingly, “Somehow, I had my own bedroom and he had his own bedroom.... But we were always together....”

But mostly it’s Marcos’ mysterious sway over those who stood to lose the most from her power, coupled with her amazing inability to face that fact, that makes “Imelda” maddeningly fascinating. Marcos’ life can read like a parable, or a story by Dickens written in his most righteous mood. The life’s work of one interview subject, in particular, rivals that of Marie Antoinette’s baker for sheer bitter cosmic irony: Imelda’s couturier, Christian Espiritu, toiled ‘round-the-clock for years in his atelier, sacrificing his seamstresses’ eyesight at the altar of Imelda’s beauty. He thought then it was his patriotic duty.

“Imelda,” as Diaz has pointed out, is a character study, but it goes beyond the individual and the forces that shaped her (the loss of her mother in childhood, dreams of stardom, a secretly unhappy private life). “Imelda” is also a portrait of a country in the grip of a post-colonial identity crisis. The film seems to suggest that the Philippine people, having been colonized by Spain, Japan and twice by the United States, were primed to place themselves at the mercy of a couple who promised to be a mother and a father to them. But they were parents who had been themselves raised in the paternalistic shadow of the United States. If you squint, “Imelda” could be the picture of any poor nation whose Imeldific dreams betray its troubled link to an extravagant, capricious superpower.




MPAA rating: Unrated

Times guidelines: Enough Imelda Marcos to last you a lifetime

Unitel Pictures International presents, a CineDiaz production, in association with ITVS and NAATA, with funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Soros Documentary Fund, released by Unico Entertainment. Producer-director Ramona S. Diaz. Director of Photography Ferne Pearlstein. Editor Leah Marino. Music Grace Nono and Bob Aves. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes.


In limited release.