For years, the Jesuit Communication Foundation (Jescom) based in the Ateneo de Manila University has built a name as the leading Catholic multimedia ministry in the Philippines. Founded by the legendary Fr. James B. Reuter, Jescom first gained a reputation as a leading publisher of liturgical music by Fr Eduardo Hontiveros and his associates. It has since ventured into print media, radio and TV broadcast, and social media ministry. In July 27, 2014, through a Facebook post, Jescom announced a new project that is ambitious in its scope: a full-length theatrical film about the founder of the Society of Jesus, Ignacio de Loyola, and only the second theatrical feature film about the saint (after the 1949 Spanish movie The Captain of Loyola).

The film opened exactly two years later. The timing couldn’t have been more apt: the chosen date came four days before the feast day of St. Ignatius, and also happened on the same week as the 31st World Youth Day in Poland, led by Pope Francis (the first Jesuit pope). An aggressive social media campaign helped push Ignacio to screen into 56 theaters nationwide on its first day. Featuring an all-Spanish cast and top-rate Filipino talents during production, and also backed by a number of Jesuit provinces (countries), expectations for the film were high.

Based on the St. Ignatius’ autobiography (where he referred to himself in the third person, as a way of abnegation), the film explores the genesis of Ignacio’s conversion and his beginnings as a preacher and spiritual adviser. As a member of the aristocracy, he was possessed by a thirst for adventure and conquest, inspired by his voracious reading of books like El Cid, Song of Roland and the Arthurian legends. After all, Ignatius lived during a vigorous period marked by adventurism and early colonialism: he was born a year before Columbus landed in America, and Magellan was killed at the Battle of Mactan around the time he dabbled in warfare. He was inspired by current events as he was by popular fiction.

After being seriously wounded in the Battle of Pamplona (1521), he was forced to give up a promising career as a military captain. Recovering after a botched operation that threatened to end his carefree life, he faced a terrifying anguish upon realizing that his life would have been worthless. Forced to read religious books when his hospital did not have his favorite genre–this was, after all, the Counter-Reformation, and most hospitals were run by the clergy and by monasteries—he suddenly realized that he was intended to serve a higher purpose and a more powerful Master, and resolved to renounce his old life and begin anew as a man of God. Between the Two Standards of God and Lucifer, he resolved to become a soldier of the Church-Militant.

The rest of the story traces Ignatius’ journey into establishing his newfound ministry, where he had free rein to share his ministry and to provide counsel using the formula he created in the Spiritual Exercises, a manual for spiritual directors from which most modern Catholic retreats are based from. The movie, however, falters in coming up with a coherent treatment of this journey, with different episodes strung together while at the same time competing through different points of view (particularly in the movie’s first act). To be fair, the same thing can be said about other Filipino films within the same genre. Among those produced in this genre within the last 30 years were Lorenzo Ruiz…The Saint…A Filipino! (1988, Maria Saret), Madre Ignacia [del Espiritu Santo]: Ang Uliran (1988, Nick Deocampo), Divine Mercy sa Buhay ni Sister Faustina (1993, Ben Yalung), Kristo (1996, also by Ben Yalung) and, more recently, Pedro Calungsod: Batang Martir (2013, Francis Villacorta). These movies also attempted to cover as much ground as possible about each saint’s life, but being unable to establish a strong theme that would have justified the selected episodes being portrayed.

That said, the film makes it up with a sincere portrayal by Andreas Munoz as Ignacio de Loyola. Munoz gives the audience an Ignacio who was less adventurous and more introspective. Resigned that his injuries could mean (among other) he would never be able to dance again with Princess Catalina (Tacuara Casares), Munoz-as-Ignacio does not hide his anguish, his being abject and defeated. Devouring every page of the Lives of Saints and the Life of Christ that he read, he slowly transformed into the calm convert, his spirits fired by a zeal to become a renewed Christian. At the same time, Munoz portrays a composed, compassionate spiritual director who wins the trust of people who confided to him; his conversation with the prostitute Anna (Marta Codina) is often cited in various reviews and social media comments as the most touching scene in the movie, and rightfully so.

Besides the all-Spanish cast (who spoke their lines in an accented English), Ignacio de Loyola is supported by top-rated Filipino talents. Ryan Cayabyab composed and conducted the movie’s powerful musi. As with his previous work in film, Cayabyab has underscored themes and ideas in the movie with easily-identifiable musical motifs, which are deftly transformed in succeeding scenes. The theme with Princess Catalina, for instance, begins as a lovely gavotte (supported by guitarist Lester Demetillo) between her and Ignacio. After they part ways and whenever Ignacio recalls his limerence, the dance theme resurfaces, each time becoming more infused with melancholy, and finally fully developing near the movie’s end as a statement of how Ignacio’s worldy desire has changed into a spiritual desire. Another recurring theme, taken from the Credo by Cayabyab (from an early opus), accompanies Ignacio’s meditations in a moving interpretation highlighted by cellist Francisco Llorin.

The entire score is recorded by the ABS-CBN Philharmonic Orchestra in a stirring reading of Cayabyab’s score that would certainly match the best music produced in other films. The Ateneo Chamber singers also provided strong support in their rendition of choral lines, notably the haunting Suscipe at the entire end credits. Having started out as a music producer, Jescom clearly spared no expense with regard to the music by hiring only the best Filipino talent it could find for this movie, and this alone for me would be worth the ticket. (I’m looking forward to buy a copy of the soundtrack’s CD.)

Director Paolo Dy may have made missteps in terms of how the movie’s story and script has been (under)developed–this being his first feature film–but there is no denying that he was motivated by a singular vision in realizing a modern take on St. Ignatius (whose story itself is larger than life). For sure, Ignacio will find its place in many education film showings and might even be regularly aired on Holy Week television specials. Having said all these, Ignacio de Loyola is a interesting (if not compelling) showcase of Filipino talent, and this film provides audiences with a good introduction on how far Filipino talent can go.

Special thanks to Eric Louie Bolante (production manager of the ABS-CBN Philharmonic Orchestra), for his assistance in providing some details about the production of Ignacio de Loyola.

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