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Bisperas: The Dichotomy of Religious Theorizing and Practice

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By Gigi Javier Alfonso

Bisperas is set in the eve of Christmas, making it a national celebration, since almost eighty percent of the population of the Philippines is Catholic. Being the third largest Catholic country in the world, Filipinos are known to have the longest celebration of the Christmas season. Amidst the Asian multi-cultural setting our country is relatively distinct. Bisperas”tries to capture this complexity through a glimpse of the Filipino family in this unique setting.

This is Bisperas by Jeffrey Jeturian, a recognized, multi-awarded director, who is a believer in the necessity of a powerful script grounded on our culture as a prerequisite for a good film. The screenplay was written by Paul Sta. Ana with Armando Lao as creative producer. Jeffrey once again uses the long takes with the hand-held camera in the cinematography of Roberto Yñiquez and good, silent editing by Lawrence Fajardo. The editing does not call attention onto itself... no gimmicks but makes the flow of the narrative clear and simple. I have to mention the seamless work by both sound maker Mike Idioma and music man Joseph Lansang which completes and unites the work well, and likewise a very effective executive producer is Atty. Josabeth Alonso.

Being with the family and walking through Christmas rituals is a tradition that is meant to be celebratory and festive. It is taken as re-enacting Christmas Eve in many Filipino towns, “panunuluyan” commemorate Joseph and Mary’s search for a place to stay with the new-born Jesus. In Bisperas the re-enactment is played up, taken as a reminder of what the holy family went through, with all the rejections, before finally resting in a very humble stable. Many Filipinos stay up to participate in this annual ritual highlighted by the holy mass. We see people in the community garbed in their best attire as seen in the first few scenes.

The film is tight with many vignettes shown one after the other... a big man bulldozing himself through the crowd to buy puto-bungbong, a man wanting to greet his brother but is absolutely ignored, a councillor coming out of a luxurious home with his family, all smiles, the exposure of a police station manned with some inefficiencies, and several more snippets of happenings. And after all these, the zeroing in on a middle class family.

After seeing the many faces of people during this season in focus, we are shown the faces of a middle class Filipino family whose members are being followed closely. They are riding the van showing happy faces with the granddaughter. There is the much-awaited Noche Buena, the celebratory meal after the midnight mass. The gift-giving is likewise a must. This is when the family’s thoughtfulness and caring are meant to be seen in the giving of aguinaldos (presents). Then the Christmas day lunch or dinner is with the family. So we see the exposition of characters, the members of the family weaving through this setting. Then we are given the anticipation of knowing what gifts they bring for the occasion. But the happy occasion turns bleak and chaotic when they arrive home and see that their house is burglarized. As things missing in the house are revealed, so are the frailty, and the vulnerability that each of the members of the family has to face and deal with.

The film Bisperas poses the question of how these highly dramatized religiosity and tightly knit activities translate to affecting the everyday lives of the individual members of the nuclear family echoing into the lives of the whole community...needless to say the whole society.

The performances are outstanding. Director Jeffrey shows his sensitivity as he makes life animated, raw and piercing on the big screen.

The film climaxes at the dinner table. Christmas meals are meant to be sacred as families are meant to be united. Here is where superb actors glue scenes together with awesome realism. Ever reliable Tirso Cruz III is most convincing as the erring patriarch of the Aguinaldo family. He is unable to hold the respect of his daughters and son. He is hoping that his wife still believes in him. The loss of control by the head of the family is shown as his daughter spits vile and hurting accusations (played by Julia Clarete). This young actress is truly a natural. Previous believable scenes with her brother shows sibling rivalry to the maximum. The other sister aptly played by Jennifer Sevilla senses all the compiling faults of her father and coupled with her own failures and weaknesses also cries out her own protests sans the foul language of the younger sister. Edgar Allan Guzman gives his share of good performance as a youth always searching, brooding and always in the middle of a battle with his sister. He shows early in the story that he is gay but the film does not pursue this... probably really meaning that this should not be an issue and should not matter.

Cruz is seen in this film as an actor with depth as he controls and translates into inner tensions with accents of fury as he portrays his character, a father of a crumbling family. Ah yes! Raquel Villavicencio is superb in her performance as the mother trying not to give up on her family, most especially on her beleaguered husband. Her use of subtlety and control in a convincing mold of a tolerant mother who finally puts her foot down... says in so many ways enough is enough.

Filipinos’ practice of religious rituals can be likened to the theorizing where we try to explain through the repetitive modes, the teachings and writings of Christ which in turn validates our values, lifestyle and realities. As we teach, preach, and pray, it is expected that we can apply all these concepts and constructs from the biblical text... these teachings that are close to us should matter and affect our everyday lives.

Is Bisperas a film discrediting the dominant religion in the Philippines? Not necessarily. I’d like to think that it is discrediting the loss of lessons and meanings that are carefully enveloped in what we are so used to. The perpetuation of a faith is meant not to be misread through its outward rituals and gestures. It may even mean that being dominant makes us close our eyes to the many little things that we think are inconsequential but are gnawing into the center of our being… leaving our core as nothing.