The society of respected film critics that hands out the annual Gawad Urian in cinematic excellence

Bisperas: A Microcosm of Middle-Class Filipino Family

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By Butch Francisco

Bisperas, culled from the Castilian word vispera or eve in English, means the day or night before a special event.

In countries where people know how to feast and celebrate, the eve of any occasion that is part of tradition is always filled with a flurry of activities. In the United States, specifically in New York City, the annual New Year’s Eve countdown in Times Square is even beamed on television to millions of viewers all over the world.

In the Philippines, bisperas is an often-used word among fun-loving Filipinos, especially in the provinces where fiestas are still big. And so we see locals who had migrated some place else rushing back home on the eve of a patron saint’s feast to be part of the celebration on the actual day of the festivities.

The two major events in Philippine calendar, of course, are Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. In the film Bisperas, the night before Christmas is used as the setting and time line for this film by Jeffrey Jeturian.

Written by Paul Sta. Ana, the story of Bisperas happens in only a matter of hours—during the traditional Christmas Eve. In the movie, we witness the tale of an urban family and how secrets and resentments are exposed after a burglary occurs while all household members attend Yuletide church rites—in their case the panunuluyan, an age-old tradition practiced even by city folk to depict the search for an inn by Mary and Joseph prior to the birth of Christ.

The eve of any important event affecting people’s lives is often the perfect time and scenario for a film, as shown here in Bisperas. For one, such occasions come packaged in the color of traditions, like the procession staged by Jeturian to depict the panunuluyan that also involves songs that complement the costumes and tableaux set up by the community’s parishioners.

The family members whose lives unfold in Bisperas are Catholic. They belong to the one religion that is richest in rites and pageantry. They are not the Catolico cerrado in the strictest sense. But they are active in church—with the father, played by Tirso Cruz III, functioning as lay minister. That doesn’t necessarily turn him into a saint at home however. And that is one sad truth realistically captured by the film: basic Catholicism only requires members of its congregation to hear mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation and to obey the nine other Commandments. Tithing is not even mandatory, but voluntary (it’s between the religious and his conscience).

We are not saying that Catholics have the loosest of morals. How many Christian church founders and pastors have been in sex scandals in the past? The Catholic Church only becomes easy target for its detractors because its members are not trained to be rabid followers who would stage rallies to fight groups or individuals mocking the Vatican. It is only when religious icons and worship grounds are violated that Catholics get offended.

The very relaxed rules set by the Holy See is actually what gives the film’s director the liberty to openly depict the family members in the story—all practicing Catholics—as far from ideal.

Their individual weaknesses are all exposed in the face of that tragic robbery that takes place on Christmas Eve. Skeletons all fall out of the closet—revealing in the process how the father has pawned their property to finance what seems to be an incurable gambling habit.

Other flaws also fly out in the open, including how siblings Julia Clarete and Edgar Allan Guzman claw at each other during fights. They use the foulest of invectives that would make Lady Gaga blush if she understood the language.

But with the mother, Raquel Villavicencio, being traditional, they carry on with the rituals of Christmas Eve dinner, especially since a US-based daughter, Jennifer Sevilla, has come home with her own child to spend the holidays with family.

Over the dinner table, there is more tension as deep wounds and raw emotions open up during this supposed happy occasion. At one point, the atmosphere becomes so thick with ill feelings that they would never be able to slice through it with the carving knife intended for their noche buena roast chicken.

By the film’s climax, the scenes become so volatile you do not know who or what will snap next. The very truthful staging of this high drama is due to the outstanding performances of the cast members. And then, of course, there is the material and direction of the film that tackles special care even of some of the littlest details of the human behavior.

A case in point is when the family discovers that there has been a break-in while they were away. Still within the confines and safety of their vehicle, the mother allows the husband to go ahead and investigate—maybe because spouses are replaceable? But truly nasty is when she commands the female house help to get out of the car and join the master—never mind if there could still be danger ahead. She is just a servant after all.

When the grown son volunteers, however, the mother puts her foot down. A mother will always protect her children above anything or anyone else, herself included. That is only one of the many layers of human behavior that viewers get to appreciate in the movie—given its very impressive structure.

The tale of Bisperas may have taken only hours to unfold, but it is rich in sad reality, which—unfortunately—is what life is all about. And this is what sets Bisperas apart from most other family dramas. It is truly one of the finest films of 2011.