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Bisperas: Family Feud on the Night Before Christmas

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By Mike Rapatan

Jeffrey Jeturian’s Bisperas takes a night in the life of the Aguinaldo family led by Ramon (Tirso Cruz III), a lay minister in a local parish church, and Salud (Raquel Villavicencio), his patient and obliging housewife. The film opens with the couple joining a panunuluyan procession on Christmas Eve with their children: the closet gay Mio (Edgar Allan Guzman), the impetuous and straightforward Ara (Julia Clarete), and Diane (Jennifer Sevilla), a balikbayan visiting the country with her daughter Steph (Aryanna Santiago).

Instead of promising to be a cordial and serene evening of family bonding reminiscent of the biblical Holy Family dramatized in the opening scene’s panunuluyan, the night for the Aguinaldo family turns out to be a bristling unpacking of long-held grudges, secrets and regrets, The trigger for the harsh outbursts begins after the procession with the family’s return to their home which they find ransacked and looted by burglars. As the police are called in to investigate the robbery which involves the loss of cameras, jewelry, clothes, passports, land title and cash, the film slowly spills out each family member’s foibles and flaws.

Mio confesses to his parents his failure to deposit the rental income entrusted to him by Salud. Diane whose American husband has been jobless for a year, reveals her three-month pregnancy of a second child. Ara accuses Ramon of pawning the family property titles to support his gambling habits. While Ramon is characteristically choleric in his self-defense against his children’s charges, Salud remains tight-lipped and stern. She finally unleashes her anger during the noche buena dinner and screams at Tirso and Jennifer to stop their antagonistic verbal exchange. Exhausted by all the fighting, each family member retires for the night as Evelyn, the house help, picks up the trash and dumps the load in a street bin.

The next morning the family is together again during the Christmas Day Mass seemingly unruffled by the previous night’s commotion. As the Mass ends, Mio spots a man wearing the jacket he was looking for the night before in their laundry area. Suspecting him to be the thief in the robbery, Mio follows the man but loses him. He fails to notice him at the church gates mingling with street vendors. The man meets a friend and in a holiday spirit of generosity opens his thick wallet and hands out some bills to his friend’s daughter. The camera then pulls away to show the façade of the church. The camera tilts up the church and the film fades out.

Plain as it may look, Jeturian’s closing long shot of the church represents a questioning gaze at religion, a critical stance that he has taken throughout this film and also displayed in past films towards other social practices, lifestyles or institutions. Whereas in previous films he surveyed the artificiality of high rise urban living in Pila, Balde, the exploitative tabloid media in Tuhog, and the sanctioned underground system of patronage gambling in Kubrador, Jeturian in Bisperas uncovers the moral thinness of a middle-class family’s observance of religious traditions and customs. Through various details such as the divergence of Ramon’s gambling vice from his work as a lay minister, the family’s attendance at Mass and receiving Holy Communion on Christmas Day following a night of heated arguments, and in other small scenes such as the sleeping guard at the front desk in the police precinct and the other quirky actions of individuals in the panunuluyan opposite the solemn portrayals by the street play’s religious characters, Jeturian builds his mise-en-scene on a dichotomy between the private and public and the pious and unethical.

For Jeturian, an uncomfortable disjuncture exists between one’s public proclamations of faith and one’s personal integrity. Religious traditions no longer seem to be rooted in individual practice or a genuine faith and so they have been reduced to spectacles. Religious anthropologists and sociologists have long called this “split-level Christianity”. Rather than expound in a polemic way about this disparity or propose therapeutic solutions to this condition, Jeturian chooses a quieter approach by examining specific character actions and subtly exposing the ironies and latent conflicts festering in the Aguinaldo household. Assisted by Boy Yniguez’s hand-held cinematography which unobtrusively follows the different characters all around the house, Jeturian collects and accumulates these small incidents and plays them against each other. He orchestrates the collision of these incidents by positioning them on a line of mounting tension which then peaks into an ear-piercing crescendo and descends into an uneasy silence.

As a family interlocked in one another’s distress, the cast cohesively performs as a tight ensemble. Apart from Raquel Villavicencio’s inevitable high-strung breakdown, the rest of the cast for the most part of the film wisely underplay their characters’ personal inadequacies and suspicions of each other. Their individual portrayals complement each other and the initial restraint they display makes the confrontation scene at the dinner table toward the end more dramatically climactic and credible. Due to the film’s cinema verite style, each family member gradually unfolds their character although at other times, one wishes there was a more rounded development of each character’s motivation and objective. In certain instances, Jeturian leaves a number of loose ends for audiences to speculate on. For instance, one wonders how critical Mio’s gay identity is to the outcome of the story. As Mio’s sister, Ara comes off simply as a hard smoking and temperamental daughter.

In spite of these gaps in character development, Jeturian succeeds in serving a meaty slice of life of a family that may stand in for so many other dysfunctional families that ultimately either disintegrate or seek treatment and regenerate. In the case of the Aguinaldo family, their future is an open question. While the outcome is ambiguous, Salud’s actions at the end hint at a possible direction. After the fight, Salud tries to restore order in the living room. She turns off the Christmas tree lights and fixes the décor. She sets upright the fallen statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Joseph and props up a cherished family photo. Her actions may be a visual allusion to the strength she draws from religion and her own resilience and maternal instinct to preserve her family in the face of their divisive family squabble.