Review: 'Felix Manalo' as idealized icon

Fred Hawson

Posted at Oct 09 2015 12:23 PM | Updated as of Oct 09 2015 08:23 PM

I have known of the Iglesia ni Cristo even as a child. Who could miss those grand churches with their distinct color and architecture? But even at my age now, I do not know much about this religion. My knowledge about it is limited to certain leaders I read about in the news. The rest of what I know are only hearsay from people who are also not INC members so I could not verify their veracity.

The INC just recently celebrated its 100 years of existence in 2014. I see this as a testament to the stability of its fundamental tenets among their believers. When this biographical film about INC founder Felix Manalo was announced, I really wanted to watch it to learn more about this homegrown religion.

"Felix Manalo" is a film by veteran mainstream director Joel Lamangan. The three hours of this film closely followed the life of Manalo from his birth in 1886 to his death in 1963. We first see him as an inquisitive young lad who was already bothered by questions about his Catholic faith at a young age.

As he grew into a young man, he felt his uncle, who was a Catholic priest, could not give satisfactory answers to his questions about Catholic practices and their Biblical basis. He therefore set forth to learn the doctrines of various Protestant sects in Manila at the time, like the Methodists, the Presbyterians, the Misyon Kristiyana, the Seventh Day Adventists, and even the Freethinkers.

His wife Honorata loyally and patiently stayed by his side as they moved their residence from town to town during her husband's soul-searching, even when she was heavy with their first child. One night in 1913, Felix locked himself up in his room meditating on his Bible, not coming out until after the third day. It was during this self-imposed retreat that he had his epiphany to create Iglesia ni Cristo, which he believed to be completely based on the words of the Holy Bible.

The film would then show the growth of Felix's family as well as the birthing pains of this new church. There was special mention about the birth of his fifth child Erano, who would eventually be elected to succeed him. Recounted in much detail were the stiff resistance the INC met from other religious sects and among the populace it was trying to reach, internal strife among his staff, the Japanese persecution during World War II, as well as the growth of the INC after the war. The concluding scenes would show us the elderly Felix with his health in decline, until his death.

Dennis Trillo was very passionate in the lead role of Felix Manalo. His Felix had perfect decorum and composure, ever dapper and formal in any attire. His Felix was the idealized icon, with nary any personal flaws, yet somehow Trillo comes up real.

This film has a lot of scenes where Felix was delivering long soliloquies, expounding on various religious issues by citing Bible verses behind his interpretations. Yet, most of the time, he was also restrained in his attack on the role, with grace under pressure. This was best seen in that heated debate scene which addressed the biggest issues hurled against the INC, with cameos by Philip Salvador and Ryan Eigenmann as the rival pastors.

Bela Padilla played a paragon of humility and wifely virtue, Mrs. Ata Manalo, always in full support of her husband without question. The makeup in her scenes as an elderly lady specially suited her very well.

From his childhood, we see Mylene Dizon (as his mother), Yul Servo, Jimmy Fabregas (as his priest-uncle), Jaclyn Jose and Sheryl Cruz. Later, we will see Richard Cunanan (as an American pastor), Arci Munoz (as Felix's first wife Tomasa) and Ricardo Cepeda (as Ata's father). Lloyd Samartino played the lawyer who helped them get the INC registered. Wendell Ramos and Richard Quan played INC pioneers whose envy at not being ordained first caused early strife within their organization.

Tonton Gutierrez, Joel Torre, Bembol Roco, Alfred Vargas, Christopher Roxas, Elizabeth Oropesa, Bobby Andrews, Raymond Bagatsing, Alice Dixson, Joem Bascon, Mon Confiado, Ejay Falcon and Richard Yap played various INC ministers and members. Eddie Gutierrez and Tony Mabesa played ministers of other Protestant sects. Heart Evangelista, Gladys Reyes and (very briefly) Rey Abellana played members of his family. Lorna Tolentino played his final doctor.

The production design team of Edgar Martin Littaua, Joel Marcelo Bilbao and Daniel Red obviously worked very hard to make sure the set and costumes remain true to the time period, which was impressive since this film covers from late Spanish period all the way to the 1960s. The cinematography of Rody Lacap was also very clean in its sepia tones. The meticulous hair and makeup by Juvan Bermil was also noteworthy.

The whole movie had the sedate and serious tone of a documentary with an episodic enumeration of highlights in the life of Felix Manalo and the INC, with the characters portrayed by an all-star (all-network) cast for mainstream appeal. The focus was mainly on Felix Manalo's search for the perfect completely Bible-based religion. Religious discourse and debate would dominate the screenplay by Bienvenido Santiago. Historical and personal events would play in the background, but religion is always in the foreground.

I think a movie like this is important because it could foster better understanding about the Iglesia ni Cristo sector of our society and the basis of the existence of their church. (I would have liked more information about how Manalo developed their rites, practices and activities within their church, but maybe those details would be too didactic for a feature film.) The running time of nearly three hours worth of religious philosophizing may be formidable (especially if you are not a member of that faith), but the epic scope, solid production values and Dennis Trillo's central performance do make this film worth the while.

This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."