'Goyo' is a Somber Sequel That is a Spectacular Indictment of Idolatry
There are two main battles in Jerrold Tarog's Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral. The second, of course, is the one we all know: the Battle of Tirad Pass, which history remembers as General Gregorio del Pilar's defining moment and last stand.
But the first, in which the film dwells for roughly two-thirds of its run time, is an internal battle, fought by del Pilar with himself as he relates to the people around him. Throughout its creative depiction of both these battles, Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral manages to tackle many of the Philippines' enduring societal ills using meticulous character development and methodical storytelling with painstaking attention to detail, punctuated by delightful flashes of humor and some of the most breathtaking frames of any Filipino movie in recent memory.
The film's first acts are dedicated to establishing and developing its titular character, his motivations, and his internal struggles. These parts of the film are set in the five months of unsuspecting peace that preceded Tirad, so there's a lot of room to explore Goyo's egoism, his questionable style of leadership, his love interests, and his doubts. Paulo Avelino, equipped with the excellent script by Tarog and writer Rody Vera, makes this work perfectly, because he fits the bill so well. As Goyo, Avelino is everything his director cracked him up to be: an actor who "could convey internal struggles more than the arrogance and overconfidence that Gregorio del Pilar was accused of," and who could show "doubt and fear hiding behind a mask of self-satisfaction." And his performance is especially crucial, because to arrive at its message, the movie repeatedly asks you to question Goyo; to reflect with him and take part in his fears and doubts.
The film asks if Goyo's failures and eventual demise were not due to his ego, which was continuously inflated and aggrandized by his friends and followers.
Because the film paints such a close and nuanced portrait of Goyo (which again, is necessary for it to deliver its messages), a lot of time is spent here—in fact, almost too much, with all the brooding and romantics. The romantics in particular tend to feel vague and ineffectual, because you can't really root for Goyo in his courtship of Remedios (played by Gwen Zamora, with a fresh and almost believable command of traditional Filipino) after the film reveals his womanizing ways early on, as just another of his heroic flaws.
But thanks to the film's aesthetic brilliance—incredible cinematography and production design par excellence, as well as a powerful musical score—Goyo never really loses your attention. It's a slow burn through the first half, but it's never boring and always beautiful.
The film eventually arrives at Tirad Pass, which at this point, is both del Pilar's heroic last stand and a culmination of the character that the film has been building up. But unlike the loud and violent action sequences of Heneral Luna, this entire act feels more like a calculated, surgical set-piece battle—more tactics than big explosions. In fact, more than the battle itself, the picturesque landscape becomes the spectacle of the film's climactic moments, in which you really get to see the much-talked-about scale of the production. On top of that, this chunk of the movie is made even more entertaining by surprising moments of pitch-perfect comic relief.
But even here—interspersed before, between, and after the gunfire—the film manages a few quiet scenes for both Goyo and the audience to think. It continues to raise questions about the main character, what he's learned, and what motivates him. Mainly, it asks if Goyo is not blindly following his president, Emilio Aguinaldo, on the basis of loyalty alone. Simultaneously, it asks if Goyo's failures and eventual demise were not due to his ego, which was continuously inflated and aggrandized by his friends and followers. In these ways, the film is an eloquent indictment of the Filipino culture of idolatry, just as its director intended.
Through to the end, Goyo is everything it promised it would be: A somber sequel, a more reflective film than Heneral Luna, a coming-of-age story set against war and political intrigue, and a character study of a flawed and ultimately fallible hero. It achieves what it set out to achieve, with the same brilliant command of cinema displayed by its predecessor. But more importantly, it's also call to critical thinking—a call to question our heroes, ourselves, and how we choose to love and serve our country. Whether or not it can match the impact of Heneral Luna depends on its audience's ability to heed those calls and ask those questions.