“Quezon’s Game” may be inspired by true events, but it proves under-inspired in its recounting of how, just before World War II, the Philippines’ then-President Manuel Quezon battled critics and anti-Semitic forces to provide refuge for European Jews facing Nazi persecution when the United States and other countries had closed their doors to them.
This brave, little-known feat by Quezon, whose apparent decency stands in stark contrast to his homeland’s controversial current leader, is certainly worth committing to film. But Matthew Rosen, who directed and shot from a script by Janice Y. Perez and “Game” composer Dean Rosen, takes a stagy, unsubtle approach to the stiff material, relying on “telling” over “showing” despite occasional efforts to open up the action, such as it is. (Budget constraints are evident.)
Set mainly in Manila in 1938 (there’s an effective 1944-set framing device), the movie tracks in earnest, if plodding, detail the process by which Quezon (Raymond Bagatsing), aided by High Commissioner to the Philippines Paul McNutt (James Paoleli), Jewish American businessman Alex Frieder (Billy Ray Gallion) and military advisor — and future U.S. president — Dwight Eisenhower (David Bianco), attempted to secure visas for 10,000 Jews trapped in German and Austrian ghettos.
Ultimately, only 1,200 or so refugees were allowed into the Philippines at the time due to the restrictive immigration quota system imposed by the U.S. on the island nation, then an American commonwealth. Parallels to present-day anti-immigrant sentiments won’t be lost on viewers.
That so many endangered Jews would be left behind to face what were becoming increasingly evident horrors infuses the stodgy narrative with some personal drama, as does Quezon’s debilitating struggle with tuberculosis (it led to his 1944 death). Unfortunately, much of the acting (save by Bagatsing and Rachel Alejandro as Quezon’s vigilant wife, Aurora) is so spotty that it undermines the story’s potential tension and emotional heft.
Most affecting are the brief end-credit clips featuring testimony from several of the actual surviving Jewish émigrés who made it to the Philippines as children.
In English, Tagalog and Spanish with English subtitles
Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes
Playing: Starts Dec. 16, Downtown Independent, Los Angeles