IF SELF-ABSORPTION were a sport, Imelda Marcos would be the Lance Armstrong, the Muhammad Ali, the Michael Jordan of narcissistic contemplation. No one else comes close.
This is the plain evidence in "Imelda," Ramona S. Diaz's revelatory documentary about the former first lady of the Philippines. You know, Imelda. She was the one with all the shoes -- more than 3,000, according to this film. She was a sort of Far East Marie Antoinette (and maybe Jackie Kennedy) to Ferdinand Marcos's Louis XVI, as the ruling couple presided over 20 years of financial corruption, widespread poverty and human rights abuses in their country. She built 14 luxury hotels for a meeting of the International Monetary Fund as well as other public buildings. She visited heads of state around the world for spurious purposes. And according to her couturier, who's interviewed in the film, her obsession with hand-embroidered dresses caused blindness in some of the people whose job it was to make them.
Of course, the Marcoses were firm pals with the U.S. government, which never met a Cold War ally it couldn't learn to love. (Look for a quick shot of Henry Kissinger swirling Imelda around the dance floor. They make a breathtaking couple.)
For this movie, Imelda Marcos initially agreed to be interviewed for 15 minutes. She ended up giving Diaz more than five hours in her Manila apartment. Five hours of Imelda on Imelda, that is. In this 90-minute film, we hear many things, oh, so many things: the time she was judged second best at a beauty pageant and made such a fuss she was declared the winner; her romantic attraction to a highly ambitious, up-and-coming politician named Ferdinand Marcos; and her evolution into a sort of Eva Peron-meets-Leona Helmsley for her country.
The film doesn't attempt to outline a political history of the Philippines, although it deals passingly with the 1983 assassination of Marcos's political opponent, Sen. Benigno Aquino. It is strongly suggested in this movie, and it was widely believed, that Aquino's death (immediately upon arrival in the Philippines) could not have happened without the tacit or clear blessing of Ferdinand Marcos. We see also the quick rise of Aquino's widow, Corazon, to the presidency, immediately after the "people power" revolution.
But there's only one star here, and she soars high in a firmament of her own giddy reality. It should come as no surprise that, after seeing this film, Imelda Marcos successfully obtained a restraining order for the film's exhibition in the Philippines, citing "extreme and irreparable injury and injustice." The fact that most of this damage comes from her own words and actions doesn't seem to have been considered crucial.
According to Marcos, her licentious spending on clothes and shoes (not to mention her husband's 1972 imposition of martial law), was a morale booster for the Filipino poor. She lived a beautiful life for them. And you haven't lived until you witness Marcos's cosmogonic, algebraic rendering of "the circle of life," which she outlines with what seems to be a Sharpie pen on a white pad. But even though Marcos, in this film, provides enough material for a few hundred giggles and head-shakings, she also shows a pathetically human side. When she mentions having seen a poster that declared "there's a little Imelda Marcos in all of us," she points to this as some sort of saintly vindication. It's sad that, even now, she can't see the irony that's draped around her like a heavily embroidered sarong.
IMELDA (Unrated, 103 minutes) -- Contains footage of an assassination attempt on Imelda Marcos and the shooting of Benigno Aquino. In English and some Tagalog with subtitles. At Visions Bar Noir. Filmmaker Diaz will lead a discussion of the movie after the 7 p.m. Friday screening.