Rating: (3 stars)
During the first half of “The Kingmaker,” filmmaker Lauren Greenfield’s fresh look at Imelda Marcos, the former Philippines first lady appears vulgar and bombastic yet fundamentally harmless. She resembles, in fact, Jackie Siegel, the wildly acquisitive Florida matron who was the subject of Greenfield’s 2012 documentary, “The Queen of Versailles.”
Yes, Imelda was the wife and accomplice of a dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, who looted and brutalized his country. But that was a long time ago. Ferdinand died in 1989, although when “The Kingmaker” opens, Imelda’s husband, curiously, has yet to be buried. It turns out that he — or, rather, she — is still planning on a sort of comeback. That’s where the movie’s tone switches from bemused to alarmed.
Greenfield spends a little too much time introducing the Imelda who helped rule the Philippines for two decades, until Ferdinand was driven into exile in Hawaii in 1986. After the overthrow, Imelda was probably best known for what she left behind in the abandoned presidential palace: 3,000 pairs of shoes. Before that, the former Miss Manila was a globe-trotter who met with world leaders — U.S. presidents as well as Third World despots — and partied with George Hamilton, Andy Warhol and, inevitably, Donald Trump.
Ferdinand and Imelda were the kind of fun couple who evicted destitute people from Calauit, their island home, so that it could be repurposed as a nature preserve with zebras and giraffes airlifted from Kenya. (Could bribery have been involved in this deal? Does a zebra flit in the woods?)
Having made it back to her homeland in 1991, Imelda spends her days flaunting and sheltering her wealth — origins not exactly unknown — and deploring the state of the Filipino union. On public outings, she grandly demonstrates her benevolence by distributing crisp paper currency to small, impoverished children. She is, she claims more than once, the “mother” of the Philippines.
She’s also the mom of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., and when he finally arrives, the story starts to come into focus. Clearly his mother’s son, Bongbong recalls begging for cash so he could return from Hawaiian exile in a first-class airline seat. Presenting himself a cash-strapped man of the people did not occur to him.
Amid a transition that’s stylistically jarring but narratively compelling, Greenfield introduces Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines’s notorious current president. As the movie demonstrates — with remarks from political opponents and photographs of people who didn’t live long enough to be interviewed — Duterte is a dangerous adversary. But not to the Marcoses. The president may even share Imelda’s evident wish that Bongbong, 62, succeed him.
Greenfield started patiently following Imelda in 2014, the year the matriarch reached 85, and must have charmed her. The documentarian reveals something of Imelda’s character by including footage of her preparations for interviews, which involve as much makeup, costuming and hairstyling as a major Hollywood production. But there’s no revelatory breakthrough with the former first lady, whose self-image seems as fixed in place as her towering hairdo.
Instead, “The Kingmaker” chills the soul by presenting shantytown residents and school kids who extol the Marcos regime and even endorse its eight-year period of martial law. Imelda Marcos is not the mother of all Filipinos, but some of them are happy to proclaim themselves her children.
R. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains images of bloody corpses. In English and Tagalog with subtitles. 101 minutes.