Greetings again from the darkness. I’ve stated it many times before, and it’s proven true again here … WWII continues to be a source for stories big and small. Stories of heroes, and stories of victims. Some of these stories are very personal, and some have historical significance – even if we may only know fragments of the full events. The first feature film from Matthew Rosen combines these elements as he brings to the screen the fascinating role of Philippines President Manuel Quezon in providing asylum to Jewish refugees.
The film is bookended with an ailing President Quezon (played by Raymond Bagatsing) watching a Holocaust newsreel with his wife Aurora (Rachel Alejandro) as he convalesces at Saranac Cove Cottage in 1944. He turns to her and asks, “Could I have done more?” We then flashback six years to 1938. The screen explodes with vibrant colors as we land in Manila, the Capital city of The Philippines.
Jewish-American Ambassador Alex Frieder (Billy Ray Gallion) receives a telegram warning from Germany, and what follows is a glimpse at the behind-the-scenes political maneuverings, rather than a direct focus on the atrocities of concentration camps. President Quezon (and his wife) are presented as compassionate and empathetic towards the plight of the Jews in Germany. They are committed to helping even if it’s not a prudent political approach and it goes against their advisors. Someone does mention that Germany is “technically not our enemy” … “no matter how much we hate the SOBs.”
It’s especially interesting (and probably unknown to the majority of Americans) that U.S. High Commissioner to the Philippines, Paul McNutt (James Paoeli), played a key role in what basically amounted to going against the orders of the U.S. Government in arranging safe passage for the Jewish refugees. McNutt had seen himself as a successor to FDR as President of the United States – a dream that ended when FDR ran for a third and fourth term. Also playing a key role was Dwight Eisenhower (David Bianco), who was a military adviser, and even offered the position of Philippines Chief of Police by Quezon. Of course, after the war, Eisenhower went on to serve two terms as President of the United States.
Co-writers Janice Y Perez and Dean Rosen, along with director Rosen, have uncovered a terrific piece of history, and with the steady stream of white suits, fat cigars, and clinking cocktail glasses, the film has the right look for a historical drama. It’s really the dialogue and execution that come up short. We never quite believe these situations are anything but staged, which results in a negative impact on the drama and tension. The Philippines were under U.S. control from 1898-1946, and Quezon was fighting for his country’s independence at the same time he faced other challenges internal to the country, his own health issues (tuberculosis), and possible ramifications for defying the U.S. The obvious comparison here is to SCHINDLER’S LIST, and while not at that level, Quezon’s actions provided asylum for 1200 Jews and make for a story that deserves to be told. The closing credits are filled with clips of survivors telling their stories … the perfect ending.