First Impression Review: GMA's Stunning Ilustrado

No spoilers. Click here for my Hindsight Review.

There are high expectations for anyone who attempts to bring a subject like Jose Rizal to the big or small screen. Being regarded as one of the greatest national heroes of the Philippines (if not the national hero), a dramatization of his life carries a big weight on its shoulders.

There is an inherent gravitas with a subject like Jose Rizal as well as the time period of the Philippine Revolution. If the pieces do not fall into place, then any such attempt to bring his life and one of the most important times in the country’s history to television or film will end up being a complete failure.

Thankfully, GMA’s Ilustrado manages to meet those high expectations and then some.

The first week of GMA’s bayaniserye was a stunningly beautiful and eye-opening introduction to a gifted young boy affectionately known to his family as Pepe. Long before he was the Jose Rizal, Pepe was just a young boy from a wealthy Filipino family who was curious about the world. But already as a young boy, Pepe would experience firsthand the injustices from the heavy hand of the Spanish.

You don’t need to be an expert on Jose Rizal or the Spanish occupation of the Philippines to understand what’s going on. You don’t even need to have heard of Jose Rizal to be able to follow and be engaged by his story.

Historical dramas are common in countries like Korea and China where their histories are filled with emperors and kings and major conquests. Their colorful, and long, histories have given birth to dozens if not hundreds of historical television dramas and films.

The Philippines has its own amazing history, but it is rarely brought to life. Especially on television. GMA’s Amaya was a largely successful attempt at a historical drama in 2011. What would be categorized as a “fusion saeguk” in Korea, Amaya was a fantasy series set in the very real pre-colonial Philippines, introducing many Filipinos to the country’s tribal origins for the first time.

Ilustrado is a straight historical drama. But the time of Jose Rizal when the Spanish were exerting their power and oppressing the “indios” of the land is just as intriguing, if not more so, than exploring the legends and mystical times of Philippines past.

Ilustrado takes the viewer to the eve of the Philippine Revolution. The Spanish clergy, authorities and aristocrats are all trampling on the lowly “indios” of the archipelago. And the whispers or revolt are only beginning.

But all of that big action is still to come. In this first week, we are only just meeting young Pepe. But not before an incredible scene to open the entire series.

Jose Rizal’s ultimate death at the hands of a Spanish firing squad was a breathtaking opening scene, done stunningly well.

Seeing that first before then rewinding to a younger Jose Rizal, back when everyone still called him Pepe helped frame what we would see the rest of the week.

Because Ilustrado is such a different kind of drama series for Philippine primetime, it may appear to be pretentious, jarring or inaccessible to a large segment of the Filipino audience who may be used to soap operas of infidelity or cute teen loveteams.

But what Ilustrado did so well in its first week is present Jose Rizal as a relatable individual. He is a young boy who grows up into a fine young man thanks to his loving and caring family. Jose Rizal is usually placed on such a high pedestal. (Quite literally!) But in this first week and what appears to be the rest of the series, Ilustrado aims to bring him down to Earth and go beyond the textbook.

In that way, the audience will be able to appreciate and maybe admire the man even more than they did previously.

Depicting Jose Rizal’s journey from childhood through adolescent romance first helps emphasize the major accomplishments and sacrifices he would ultimately make until his death.

Bringing Ilustrado to life is GMA News and Public Affairs, which is probably the biggest reason why it has managed to meet and exceed all expectations.

GMA News and Public Affairs has already produced several television dramas including Bayan Ko, Titser and Sa Puso ni Dok. All of which have been of considerably different quality, both visually and creatively, from other Filipino dramas.

They have also produced Katipunan, a drama series depicting the efforts of another national hero, Andres Bonifacio, during the Philippine Revolution.

Common to all GMA News and Public Affairs-produced dramas is its stunning high definition visuals. When “HD” is too often thrown around in network press releases in the Philippines, especially when there aren’t HD feeds for any of the major networks, the term and the use of high definition cameras can get diluted.

But like other GMA News drama series, Ilustrado uses the HD to enhance and add to the overall experience of the series. Ilustrado features stunning cinematography with a careful and precise direction that highlights the beautiful locations and the intricate wardrobe of the late 19th century while still keeping the story and the actors bringing it to life the principal focus.

(And here we have another series that makes the lack of high definition broadcasts in Philippines even more frustrating.)

A great deal of visual effects are also used to help enhance the existing physical locations to further present that late-1800s setting. And these aren’t just any ol’ cheap special effects that you’d see on some fantasy soap opera. These are meticulously specific details that give Ilustrado a unique and stunning cinematic look.

Alden Richards is tasked with bringing Jose Rizal to life in this television drama. But in this first week, it was the talented Jhiz Deocareza as the young Pepe who gave the audience its first engaging and believable look at the young boy who would inspire a revolution.

Eula Valdez as Rizal’s mother Teodora Alonzo is also an inspired casting choice, delivering a tempered, yet strong performance that coupled well with Jhiz Deocareza and later Alden Richards. That is opposite to Jaclyn Jose’s typical overdramatic style as Conchita Monteverde that almost makes every scene she is in seem like a spoof of a serious drama.

The focus in Philippine entertainment these days is so often on the simplistic and lowest common denominator-type of content. So when a series like Ilustrado comes along, it immediately commands attention. And deserves it too. A series made with such thought and care should be the norm on Philippine TV, not the exception.

Ilustrado‘s subject matter on its own deserves attention. It seems many Filipinos today are forgetting their history, including what makes a true hero.

But the series itself is an accomplishment. Stunningly crafted with intelligent writing and strong performances, Ilustrado is an engaging and provocative series that Filipinos and non-Filipinos alike should watch and enjoy.

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