Producer: Marizel S. Martinez, Enrico C. Santos and John Paul E. Abellera Director: Matthew Rosen Screenplay: Janice Y. Perez and Dean Rosen Cast: Raymond Bagatsing, James Paoleli, David Bianco, Rachel Alejandro, Kate Alejandrino, Billy Ray Gallion, Paul Holme, Audie Gemora, Nor Domingo, Jennifer Blair-Bianco, Tony Ahn, Miguel Faustmann, Ham McLeod and Kevin Kraemer Distributor: ABS-CBN Films
Good intentions cannot compensate for clumsy execution in Matthew Rosen’s film about the Philippine president who fought opposition from within and without to allow German Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi oppression to enter his country in 1938, when they were being barred from so many others, including the United States, which effectively controlled the Philippines at the time under Commonwealth status. (Independence would not come until the next decade.) “Quezon’s Game” is obviously a labor of love, and it deals with an uplifting episode in Holocaust history that’s too little known. But unfortunately the film is not worthy of its subject, being too melodramatic and stultifyingly verbose.
Raymond Bagatsing gives a dignified performance as Manuel Quezon, the principled president who determined to open his country to settlement by Jews from Germany after learning, mainly through the efforts of cigar company executives Alex and Herbert Frieder (Billy Ray Gallion and Tony Ahn), of the increasingly violent policies adopted by Hitler’s regime against them. He enlists the U.S. high commissioner Paul McNutt (James Paoleli) in the effort, but there are grave obstacles, including resistance not only from the German ambassador (Ham McLeod) and his newly-arrived head of security Lt. Ebner (Kevin Kraemer), an ultra-committed Nazi, and Washington, but from members of Quezon’s administration, including his vice-president Sergio Osmeña (Audie Gamora).
But Quezon has another American ally in Lt. Col. Dwight Eisenhower (David Bianco), serving as military attaché to McNutt. He takes an active role in encouraging Quezon in his plan, even bringing the matter to the attention of Douglas MacArthur (Miguel Faustmann)—who is not sympathetic to the cause.
All the material regarding the infighting over arranging for the refugees to be admitted to the Philippines is presented in the form of long conversations, often conducted over tables stocked with liquor while the participants enjoy their cigars (so plentiful here that they become a visual motif) but sometimes on sun-soaked verandas and, toward the close, in government conference rooms. The discussions are often extremely long, and in many cases degenerate into heavy-handed speechifying (one delivered by McNutt toward the close references the words on the Statue of Liberty).
Juxtaposed with the governmental business is an ancillary plot thread dealing with Quezon’s domestic life, in particular his relationship with his wife Aurora (Rachel Alejandro), who objects to not being told everything about what’s happening. Adding to the turmoil is the recurrence of Quezon’s tuberculosis, a condition that could threaten his life.
This is a great deal of ground to cover, and the film’s treatment is lumpy. As noted, the writing is frequently clumsy, and to add to the problems the acting is extremely variable, with Bagatsing a strong presence but many others coming across as amateurish. (Kraemer, for example, is such a Nazi caricature that he might have stepped out of a high school production of “Tbe Sound of Music.”) Rupert Joseph Aquino’s editing is languid, though to be fair much of the dilatory feeling comes from Rosen’s pacing. On the other hand, Rosen’s cinematography has a lustrous sheen (there are a number of multi-hyphenates here: co-writer Dean Rosen, for instance, also provided the overbearing score).
Comparisons are often invidious, and they are sometimes unfair. In this case, however, in several instances “Quezon’s Game” itself contains echoes of “Schindler’s List” (the opening prologue, in which Quezon and his wife are shown watching newsreel footage of Nazi death camps in exile in 1944, is a case in point), and in that company it comes up very much second-best. Rosen, of course, is no Spielberg, nor Bagatsing, despite his quality, Liam Neeson. At best this is a poor second cousin to a film widely recognized as a masterpiece of Holocaust cinema.
And yet the subject is an important one, and as the powerful testimonials given during the closing credits from some of the 1,200 refugees brought to the Philippines before the Japanese invasion forced Quezon to go to the United States as a government-in-exile make clear, he is deserving of far greater recognition than he has previously received. Though it’s not a terribly good film, Rosen’s obvious labor of love can make Quezon’s act of moral and political courage better known.