More Than History, Quezon’s Game is a Film about Our Future
“Could I have done more?”
Manuel Quezon, second President of the Philippines and the first of the Commonwealth, asks this question of his wife, Aurora, as they view a 1944 newsreel on the atrocities of the Nazi regime. The American cameras don’t hold back: real-life images of Jewish corpses, in holes and in ovens, flash on the screen, with countless more exposed as army officers dig through. It’s a horrendous sight.
This is the first thing audiences see in director Matthew Rosen’s award-winning film, Quezon’s Game, and it underlines the urgency of the former president’s mission. In 1938, just four years after securing Philippine independence via the passage of the Tydings-McDuffie Act, Quezon (Raymond Bagatsing) is alerted of the impending Nazi Holocaust. Along with Jewish cigar magnate Alex Frieder, military adviser Dwight D. Eisenhower, and U.S. High Commissioner to the Philippines Paul McNutt, he begins a lengthy, heavily opposed process to accept thousands of Jewish refugees into the country.
Bagatsing’s Quezon is an uncanny reproduction of the man seen in archival footage, whose dignified resilience inspired Filipinos decades ago. As the plot progresses, and weight of the refugee crisis begins to bear down on him, Quezon’s bombast in earlier scenes gives way to weariness. Bagatsing handles this transition with admirable deft, managing to find a delicate balance between desperation and hope. He plays Quezon as a man who constantly wavers, but never quits in the pursuit of justice, driven by a moral imperative to help his fellow man.
Of the rest of the quartet, Billy Ray Gallion—as Frieder—is given the most compelling material to work with, as a Jew who carries the unenviable task of deciding who among his countrymen can be saved from genocide, if any at all. It’s one of the actor’s strongest performances yet, after Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral and bit appearances in American television. David Bianco delivers an entertaining Eisenhower, though the strength of his performance lies more in his chemistry with Bagatsing than in what the material allows. James Paoleli’s McNutt, on the other hand, is serviceable at best; he neither shines nor dims during his time onscreen.
A still from Quezon's Game
Among supporting roles, veteran actor Audie Gemora deserves special mention for his portrayal of Sergio Osmeña, a sympathetic foil to Quezon’s often bull-headed demeanor. Rachel Alejandro is also brilliant as Quezon’s wife, Aurora, snapping between “elegant first lady” to “everyday Filipino wife” with ease. Her moments alone with Bagatsing, when the couple bicker in a mix of Spanish, English, and Tagalog, are among the most endearing in the entire film. Kate Alejandrino makes the most of her limited screentime as the Quezons’ radiant, shrewd daughter Baby.
The film’s most emotional moments would not be as effective if not for Dean Rosen’s original score. Rosen, who recently starred as Cal in Atlantis Theatrical’s production of Waitress, also makes a stirring cameo as a Jewish refugee finding safe haven in Manila.
Quezon’s Game is not without its faults, however. The movie’s lighting design often employs stark white lights to create picture-perfect silhouettes, but its frequent usage throughout tends to make certain scenes feel unnecessarily clinical.
Raymond Bagatsing plays Manuel Quezon
The costume department also appears to have leaned too heavily on white clothing, which reinforces this clinical aesthetic. Though it is, in fact, historically accurate given white suits were the norm in 1930s Manila, that there was little to no deviation from this palette became a small distraction in latter parts of the movie. Even at balls—where gowns and dresses in rich, vibrant hues were normally seen—ensembles were inexplicably neutral.
The film’s most egregious shortcoming is, surprisingly, noticed only after the fact. The events of Quezon’s Game play off on film as though they had taken places in a matter of weeks when in reality, the U.S. government allowed the Philippines to accept refugees in 1941—based on the film’s timeline after an arduous three-year process. Had the passage of time been more pronounced in the storytelling, perhaps the impact of Quezon’s efforts might have been greater.
These criticisms, however, are minute in comparison to the film’s relevance to modern society. More so than the direct parallels to today’s refugee crises, its message of moral responsibility in the face of oppression is one that needs to be shared.
At a time when Jews were fleeing Nazi Germany, fearing for their lives, other countries would turn them away. Governments like the U.S. would send the huddled masses back to their oppressors, saying that there was no room for them on American soil. The Jews were always “someone else’s problem,” as though one’s faith and ethnicity made them lesser beings; dogs left abandoned on the streets, with no one willing to bring them anywhere but back to their abusive homes.
The Philippines was one of a handful of countries that opened its doors to Jewish refugees, in defiance of American policy. Its people stood together in the face of racial prejudice, demanding that they be allowed to help their fellow human beings. While the rest of the world looked away from Jewish oppression, the Philippines spread its arms in welcome, simply because it was the right thing to do.
“Could I have done more?,” Quezon asks, as he witnesses millions of lives lost in Nazi Germany—lives he couldn’t save.
He did what he could, which is more than anyone else at the time did. He acted out of compassion, out of empathy, and out of responsibility. At a time when societies are as divisive as they are now—when governments around the world continue to murder and oppress—perhaps what we need more than ever are people to put their empathy to action.
To do what they can.
“Quezon’s Game” is currently screening nationwide.