Poverty, corruption, political repression, and iron-fisted dictatorship defined Ferdinand Marcos' two-decade run as president of the Philippines, but his wife Imelda's legacy will always be in footwear. When the Marcos regime ended in 1986 and the couple was exiled to Hawaii, the palace was found to contain, among the riches not looted by its outgoing occupants, upwards of 3,000 pairs of shoes, enough for the former Miss Manila runner-up to wear a new pair every day for eight years. To the outside world, the shoes symbolized gross excess of Roman Emperor proportions, capping a period in which the Marcos duo raided the country's coffers and became one of the wealthiest families in the world. As for Imelda herself, she seems tickled by the association.
For the fascinating character study Imelda, Ramona S. Diaz was given a month's access to the former first lady, who supplies so many bizarre equivocations that it's hard to tell whether her actions were malicious or merely delusional. In a telling moment, she says, "There's a fine line between being smart and being crazy," which sums up her persona in a nutshell, combining political savvy and charm with eccentricity and extreme self-regard. Reading passages from her book Circles Of Life, with New Age-y passages that equate beauty with God, love, and peace, Imelda elevates vanity to a kind of philosophy, casting herself as its most vaunted practitioner. Based on the evidence at hand, critics and admirers alike will concede to her supremacy on that front.
Volleying effectively between the world as Imelda sees it and the world as it really is, Diaz traces the Marcos' bumpy history in the public eye, starting when the charismatic power couple (they married 11 days after meeting) won their first and only legitimate election and continuing through years under martial law, during which the president jailed more than 17,000 dissenters. For her part, Imelda made an especially glamorous world ambassador and began what some call her "edifice complex," appropriating public funds to build artistic and cultural centers, as well as various shrines to herself. The nadir came when she hurried construction on a movie theater intended to house the Manila International Film Festival, which she hoped would rival Cannes. In the rush to complete the project, an accident buried more than a dozen workers in concrete, but she ordered that the job continue unabated.
Ghosts are said to haunt that theater, but nothing seems to haunt Imelda, who doesn't seem to possess the conscience necessary for a crisis of conscience. Throughout the film, Diaz offers fiery testimonials by journalists, diplomats, opposition leaders, and other opponents who credibly contradict virtually every statement she makes, but Imelda takes their criticism at a chilly distance, retreating back to her own little world. She's so far removed from reality that her monstrous behavior seems somehow benign, nothing like the willful tyranny of her husband. After all, what can be done about a woman who complained about the "ugly" bola knife used by an attempted assassin? She may deserve to die, Imelda suggests, but would it be asking too much for her death to be pretty?