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'The Kingmaker': Film Review | Venice 2019

Lauren Greenfield's documentary explores the extravagant wealth and ongoing political ambition of former Filipino first lady Imelda Marcos.

Kingmaker. Puppetmaster. Power Behind the Throne. Whatever you want to call her, Imelda Marcos has been calling most of the shots in the Philippines for a large part of the past half-century and this new documentary insists that, at 90, she's not done yet and won't leave the stage until she's installed her son securely in command. Whether that happens or not, director Lauren Greenfield paints an engaging, appalling but inevitably partial portrait of a woman who has navigated through countless political and personal squalls but remains irretrievably drawn to the flame of power. Political junkies will pig out.

With the exception of Queen Elizabeth II, there is probably no one alive today who has spent more time in the corridors of world power for longer than Imelda Marcos. From appearances still sharp and in evident good health, she has suffered any number of setbacks during her many-chaptered career. But it's made perfectly clear here that she still has unfinished business and will until her son Ferdinand Marcos Jr., better known as “Bongbong,” becomes president, a prospect the current controversial president, Rodrigo Duterte, appears to welcome (Bongbong narrowly lost the election to become vice-president in 2016).

Greenfield, whose previous work (including the documentaries The Queen of Versailles and Generation Wealth) reveals an undisguised fascination with the wealthy, devoting roughly the first half of her archivally-rich study of unabated power lust to Imelda's quick rise to eminence and subsequent heyday as a dominant first lady. She clearly had her eyes on the prize from the outset, as the well-raised young woman immediately recognized something in Ferdinand Marcos; she married the rising army officer less than two weeks after meeting him, in 1954. Although hurt by his infidelities, the former Miss Manila candidate carved out a role for herself that produced virtually unlimited money and power.

Upon her husband's ascension to the presidency in 1965, Imelda, while announcing her desire to create for her people “a paradise for all, I want to give birth to it,” immediately set about establishing herself as an international celebrity. Young and always expensively decked out, she effortlessly overshadowed her husband at the White House and with the British royal family on the one hand, and with Mao and Saddam Hussein on the other, while positioning herself as the fairy godmother to the needy children of the world.

All the while, she and her husband were siphoning off money from their perennially struggling nation to an extent that is hard to pin down but is nonetheless staggering; most estimates put the amount at a minimum of $10 billion; Imelda's much-noted shoe collection, each pair of which she would only wear once, remains a humorous symbol of her extravagance. A more egregious case of the couple's heedless excess, well documented here, is a private game preserve on the island of Calauit, where local natives were displaced so that animals brought in from Africa could roam free and generate tourism. This did not turn out well.

Such outrageous stories and outsized personalities make for good subjects, of course, and the viewer is mainly treated to examples of presumption and ego-gratification that are often par for the course where dictatorship is concerned. What The Kingmaker doesn't do is fully explore the evil and murderousness of the regime. Unavoidable, of course, is the assassination, at the Manila Airport in 1983, of Benigno Aquino Jr., even if who actually ordered the killing remains uncertain. But, as in any dictatorship, those in power will ruthlessly deal with any perceived adversaries, something that seems rather scanted compared to all the screen time Imelda gets to explain herself.

After the family's ouster in 1986, the old man's death and a period in the wilderness (Hawaii, to be precise), the family returned to the Philippines in 1991 and Imelda was elected to congress four years later; she started her final term in 2016. No matter what, the public remains enthralled by this enduring icon, whose personality remains strong and, at least for her loyal public, persuasive in old age. She simply won't be denied.

Venue: Telluride Film Festival

Production: Showtime, Evergreen Pictures, Candescent Films

Director: Lauren Greenfield

Producer: Frank Evers, Lauren Greenfield

Executive producers: Lilly Hartley, Jeffrey Tarrant

Director of photography: Lars Skree

Music: Jocelyn Pook

100 minutes

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