"I was a star and a slave," says Imelda Marcos, and in the chasm between the truth of the first and the delusion of the second lies the entertainment value of "Imelda," the solid and scarifying documentary opening today. Ramona S. Diaz's film wants to understand what Our Lady of the Ferragamos means to the people of the Philippines, and what, if anything, they mean to her.
The filmmaker has an unlikely ally: Imelda Marcos herself, who granted the filmmaker a long interview and later won a temporary injunction preventing the finished film from being shown in the Philippines. (The ban was quickly overturned, and "Imelda" went on to become a smash Filipino hit, beating "Spiderman 2" in theaters.)
Clearly, the young Imelda Romualdez wasn't just the right girl for an up-and-coming politician like Ferdinand Marcos, she was also his soul mate in grandiose ambition. After a whirlwind 11-day courtship led to their 1954 marriage, the "love team" embarked on a determined wooing of the country that culminated in Marcos's 1965 election as president with the tacit approval of the US government, whose Philippines military bases were crucial Cold War chess pieces. "Imelda" follows its subject's glittering, ever-beautiful career through the notoriously dirty 1969 elections, the 1972 announcement of martial law, a failed assassination attempt on Imelda, parties with Henry Kissinger and George Hamilton (the footage of the actor singing "I Can't Give You Anything But Love, Imelda" is well and truly damning), and a growing mountain of dresses, jewels, and, yes, shoes.
"Imelda" is at its most acridly useful when comparing the former first lady's recollections with others' less sanguine memories. "We have no human rights cases in the Philippines," she insists, and Diaz cuts to witnesses who testify to the 70,000 political detainees over the years of the Marcos regime and to journalists who describe their own torture. "It is not expensive to be beautiful. It takes only a little effort," says Imelda, and her couterier, Christian Espiritu, recalls seamstresses going blind from hand-embroidering thousands of her gowns. And yet Imelda is oddly engaging in her rose-colored perceptual prison. You understand why she still gets hugs and autograph requests on the streets of Manila, why there's an Imelda Marcos shoe museum in the town of Marikena, and why Diaz herself views her with something close to fondness.
"Thank God I never lost my childhood innocence," the lady says, and that sentence proves itself and damns her in the same instant. We love our monsters, "Imelda" tells us, especially the ones who never, ever repent.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.