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At Large

Understanding Hermano Puli

/ 12:20 AM September 25, 2016

There is a shot, at the end of the movie “Ang Hapis at Himagsik ni Hermano Puli (The Agony and Fury of Brother Puli)” that yanks moviegoers back to present-day reality. Lest I be accused of giving the story away, suffice it to say that it is a rude awakening, referencing the painful bloody events we confront each day to events of yesteryears, to the times of struggle for independence, religious freedom and self-determination for Filipinos.

As the movie tells it, Apolinario de la Cruz was an earnest young man who felt a calling for the priesthood but bumped heads against the racial discrimination of Catholic religious orders for men. At the time, the religious orders, such as the Franciscans and Dominicans, refused admittance to “indios” or those of native blood. Undaunted, De la Cruz pursued his calling, preaching and organizing folks in his native Tayabas (now Quezon province), and surrounding provinces like Batangas, Laguna, Camarines Sur, and even in Tondo, Manila.

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De la Cruz named the vehicle for his preaching and organizing the “Cofradia de San Jose” (Brotherhood of St. Joseph). And he was known to his followers as Hermano (Brother) Puli. Inspired by a dream, De la Cruz entrusted his growing flock to a younger brother and traveled to Manila to pursue his desire to be ordained a priest and, later, to have the Cofradia recognized by both civil and religious authorities. But he was rebuffed by both, and contented himself instead with working as an orderly in the San Juan de Dios hospital, which still exists today.

But the noose was closing in. Alarmed by reports of the growing size and popularity of the Cofradia, and fearing its use by insurgents or revolutionaries, religious and colonial authorities began harassing the members of the brotherhood. Hermano Puli returned to his native ground, gathering his flock and transplanting them to the foothills of the mystic mountain of Banahaw.

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The movie doesn’t say so explicitly, but it seems the years of adversity had turned Puli into a mystic, spewing Latinized prayers and incantations, motivated by visions and a belief in the invincibility of faith—symbolized by brass amulets or anting-anting worn by believers as protection against such mundane material as bullets, cannonballs and swords.

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Although Hermano Puli’s struggle for religious freedom took place in the 1840s, by the time the Propaganda Movement and the Katipunan took hold in the 1890s, Hermano Puli had faded into obscurity.

Film director Gil Portes, who hails from Quezon and grew up in Pagbilao, says he “discovered” the story of Hermano Puli 21 years ago. At the time, in the middle of shooting a movie in Lucban, an old man approached their group and handed him a sheaf of documents about the Cofradia de San Jose and Hermano Puli. After reading the story of Hermano Puli’s life, Portes told Inquirer contributor Brylle Tabora: “I found his life so engrossing. Right there and then, I wanted this story to be in my bucket list of films that I want to do before I leave this earth.”

But it would take Portes another 21 years and countless frustrations before he could raise enough money to begin production. Fortunately, “Hermano Puli” the movie was preceded last year by “Heneral Luna,” the bio-pic on the revolutionary general Antonio Luna that became a “sleeper” hit that just recently dominated the Film Academy “Luna” awards. The public, it seemed, has been “primed” for historical epics.

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I entered the cinema filled with goodwill for the movie and anticipating the thrill of another historical epic, especially on such a romantic, enigmatic figure as Hermano Puli.

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Well, let’s just say my hopes were dashed. Everyone does his or her level best in the film, and you can feel the good intentions shining through. But something fell short in the execution. I suspect it had something to do with the skimpy production budget, which shows in the shabby half-hearted period costumes and chintzy art direction. (But I applaud the use of the Pasyon or Holy Week incantations in the soundtrack.)

And while I understand the inadequacy of material on Hermano Puli, who left little by way of documents to define himself and his life’s work, we are left with little more than sketchy details. I suppose very little of his epistolary relationship with his followers survives.

But questions remain. What exactly motivated him to establish the Cofradia? What drew his hundreds of followers to his preaching and his vision, enough for them to uproot themselves and sacrifice their lives? How did he feel after years of rejection and abnegation based solely on his race?

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Hermano Puli, it seems, let such wounding, hurtful matters simply pass him by. Or, as portrayed by actor Aljur Abrenica, it barely left a trace of anger, insult, indignation or ire on him.

In “Heneral Luna” or even “Ignacio de Loyola,” the Filipino-helmed movie on the life of the founder of the Jesuits, creativity substituted for a possible lack of source material. Both films showed, by way of voice-over, reimagined scenes, and creative staging, the inner struggles of their main characters. The moviegoer thus gets a well-rounded appreciation of the inner turmoil as well as the external events that defined an extraordinary person’s life and death.

Hermano Puli and the Cofradia de San Jose, we are told, live on in numerous cults and semireligious groups especially in areas around the mystic mountain of Banahaw. Called “colorums,” the groups are a combination of religious cult and mutual aid societies, promising eternal salvation in the here and now. Indeed, Hermano Puli lives on, but he deserves a better movie to explain why this is so.

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TAGS: Ang Hapis at Himagsik ni Hermano Puli, Apolinario de la Cruz, Cofradia de San Jose, Films, Hermano Puli
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