Its brand-name title crying out for an exclamation point, this documentary portrait of Imelda Marcos is ambivalently pleased to subsume the political in the personal—or rather to subsume it in the calculatedly madcap personality of the erstwhile first lady and de facto co-dictator of the Philippines.
Granted unprecedented access to her still glamorous, ever zany, seventysomething subject, filmmaker Ramona S. Diaz seems captivated, literally. Imelda holds court in what might be a motorized powder puff careening through the streets of downtown Manila. Meanwhile, Diaz tracks the diva’s rise from teenage beauty queen and patriotic songstress to the pinnacle of power, ignominious exile, and her current “I Will Survive” return.
The young Imelda married Ferdinand Marcos before, as she says, she “could become a movie star,” and proved a formidable asset in his career. The two projected a youthful romantic image during the 1965 campaign—the Filipino JFK and Jackie, although Jackie never sang! Late in his second term, Marcos declared martial law and ruled as dictator for another 14 years. Imelda escaped assassination and, even as the Marcos regime imprisoned thousands and looted the country, undertook a program of showy public works. She also cavorted on the world stage in outfits worthy of Dynasty. Diaz shows her flirting with Qaddafi, dancing with Kissinger, and being serenaded by George Hamilton.
Imelda, of course, has no difficulty holding the camera. Whether posing with her husband’s embalmed corpse or campaigning for her children Bong-Bong and Imee, she’s always on—irrepressibly self-dramatizing, extremely voluble (“She talked at me for four hours and then played a video,” someone says), and totally shameless. “We were the ultimate victims,” Imelda explains in reference to the never solved 1983 assassination of opposition leader Benito Aquino. An excerpt from a drag show pits her impersonator against Corazon Aquino’s. Not the last media icon to rule the Philippines, Imelda embodies the syncretic nature of the nation’s political culture. The movie’s lunatic closer has Bong-Bong and Imee getting down to Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough.” Enough, indeed. “When they went to my closet they found shoes, not skeletons,” Mrs. M tells Diaz. Entertaining as it is, Imelda seems all too willing to take her at her word.