Quezon’s Game movie review: earnest historical drama struggles to tell its important tale

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Quezon's Game red light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

An untold Holocaust story, of Philippine president Manuel Quezon’s fight to take in Jewish refugees, feels like it remains untold: this sluggish, overlong film cannot overcome its low-budget roots.
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, female coscreenwriter, male protagonist
(learn more about this)

With a release timed to the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, on January 27, 1945 — with January 27th now commemorated as the annual International Holocaust Remembrance Day — Quezon’s Game brings us yet another previously untold story of the Holocaust.

In 1938, Philippine president Manuel Quezon arranged for over a thousand Jews to escape the Nazi regime and settle in his country, a task that was nowhere as easy as you’d think it would be for a nation’s leader, for the Philippines was at the time a commonwealth of the United States, and subject to strict immigration limits that were outside Quezon’s control. Still, Quezon managed to save as many people as the very celebrated Oskar Schindler, yet his achievement remains largely unknown in the larger cultural consciousness.

Quezon's Game David Bianco Raymond Bagatsing
Quezon confers with US army Lt. Col. Dwight Eisenhower (David Bianco)…

Alas, his story still feels untold, for this low-budget Philippine production struggles to tell the tale, and even a very good central performance from Raymond Bagatsing, as Quezon, cannot overcome the limitations of a weak script. Sluggish and overlong, the screenplay — by Janice Y. Perez and Dean Rosen — is way too slow out of the gate, taking a pointless 30 minutes to get around to letting us know what it’s about, and is rife with dramatic detours and narrative tangents that might not feel awkward and out of place if the script was more elegant… or, indeed, any elegant at all. And then filmmaker Matthew Rosen, a cinematographer and TV and commercial director making his feature debut, completely fails to impart the urgency of the situation, and cannot capture the frustration of the American bureaucracy Quezon was forced to contend with, nor the overwhelming bigotry of a US still happy with racial segregation, never mind anti-Semitism. These things are mentioned, but they feel like the stuff of dry lectures rather than lived realities.

I wish this was a better film, not only for the sake of the story it’s trying to tell, but for that of the context in which it happened: the one in which America utterly failed to do right by Germany’s threatened Jews by refusing to accept refugees from the Nazis. It’s a past that continues to resonate today: as they say, the past is not dead, it’s not even past. Quezon’s humanitarian efforts stand in contrast to America’s past and present shame… and the fatal failings of this movie — it’s a chore to sit through — render it unable to underscore that in the manner it so desperately deserves.

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