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

Serbis: Cinema purgatorio

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By Lito B. Zulueta

“SERBIS,” the first Filipino movie to have competed at the Cannes Film Festival in more than a quarter of a century, opens with what appears to be a commentary on its feat. A very young woman, Jewel (Rosanne Jordan), newly bathed and naked, admires herself in the cracked life-size mirror, moaning with apparent pleasure as if she were making love with her reflection. The camera lingers, perhaps a tad lasciviously, on her body, until she’s woken up from her narcissistic daydream by the catcall of her pesky little brother, who has surreptitiously opened the door to catch her unawares. When he runs away from her to announce to the rest of the family what she has been doing, the viewer learns that they are living in a vast movie house that has seen better days and scarcely survives with a double-feature program of faded sex movies where the actors always find an excuse to undress every 15 minutes. The theater scarcely survives on a diet of sex screenings, but they will do: patrons hardly go there to watch movies, after all; they go there to feast on the lusty images onscreen, rev up their libido, transact for sex with or without payment, and do their lurid acts under the disguise of darkness. It’s literally “service after dark.”

With shock, one discovers the initial conceit of Brillante Mendoza’s brilliant movie. The young woman is merely aping the tired cliches of sex movies, their predictable heroines with sexuality erupting out of their bodies that are barely past pubertal throes. But while Jewel basks in the splendor of her youth, even in a cinematheque that shows tinsel images of women of her age and beauty, she’s nondescript and ignored: all the merry, intricate world goes by, indulging in its own cheap, criminal passions, a world as bizarre as anything conjured by Hieronymous Bosche.

It is also on this incipient level that “Serbis” achieves metafictional dimension, allowing Mendoza to make a poignant commentary on the state of the Philippine movie industry, which has also seen better days. Easily resorted to by movie producers because they’re cheap to make and quick to earn, sex movies are a boon and a bane for creative cinema: a boon because they allow a dying industry to stave off death, a bane because they’re made by profiteers and mercenaries who are agents of the artistic bankruptcy of our movies, the grim reapers of Philippine cinema. A boon because movies like “Serbis,” invariably mistaken as nothing more than a sex movie and in fact, getting an X-rating from its own country’s censors, get invited to film festivals abroad where they are feted and acclaimed; and a bane because Pinoy sex movies, which “Serbis” identifies itself as but with self-reflexive thoughtfulness, seem destined to last as the one cinematic genre that the world would come to know as peculiarly Filipino. It’s like the Philippines making a world stage out of her dirty underwear.

But it is the particular strength of “Serbis” that it’s not another exercise in metacinematic conceit, albeit a particularly biting one; it makes the crumbling movie house and Philippine cinema in general the literal or historical level with which to embody, in allegorical and tropological dimensions, the decline of a family’s fortunes and its struggles to keep body and soul together. When the movie opens at the start of the day, the matriarch Nanay Flor (Gina Pareño) is found by her daughter Nayda (Jaclyn Jose) in the darkness of the theater (itself named Family), praying the rosary, seemingly sanctifying a place that a few hours earlier will be the scene of sexual decadence. But she’s really praying that a court promulgation that day on the bigamy case she has filed against her husband would turn in her favor. Her hope is not apparently shared by her siblings, since the eldest (Dan Alvaro) has testified in favor of his father, fearful that if bigamy is established by the court, then the family would have to share its possessions with the other family.

Nayda has other things in mind. She attends to her kid growing up in a theater that’s nothing but a sex den and keeps a watchful eye on a teenage daughter who’s fast becoming a woman. She has also found her fixed marriage to Lando (Julio Diaz) entering a period of dormancy, so that she’s carrying on an illicit affair with a cousin (Kristoffer King), the theater’s projectionist. Meanwhile, another cousin, Alan (Coco Martin), who also lives in the theater and paints the movie house’s billboards and announcements, has gotten his girlfriend (Mercedes Cabral) pregnant. When she breaks the news to Nay Flor, whose suit has been dismissed by the court for lack of evidence, the matriarch breaks down; but she announces just the same they will be married: the family’s name shall be protected; it will remain whole.

Retreating to her room full of religious icons, Nay Flor takes a bath and in the same cracked mirror that her granddaughter had used earlier, she fixes and collects herself. When she goes down to join her family, she inspects the theater and declares that the place needs a lot of fixing. She takes her place in the box office, and behind the glass window, like the cracked mirror upstairs, she looks eroded and beaten. Although glass and mirror don’t reflect the seductive beauty of youth like her grand-daughter, behind the weathered pane, Nay Flor still exudes dignity and grace, a figure of solid strength against a world falling apart. Gina Pareño establishes her authority by drawing from her indomitable spirit and near-inexhaustible reserves of strength; her Nay Flor is both impressive and heartbreaking.

Particularly in its deep-focus and expansive cinema-verite cinematography and virtuoso production design and art direction (the Art Deco theater is the real thing, the actors are rouged effectively to better mirror their characters, and the characters speak in Kapampangan), Brillante Mendoza achieves a perfect melding of his trademark documentary realism with the expressionism of “Kaleldo.” Both “Kaleldo” and “Serbis” in fact are paeans to the family, their tenor nostalgic and elegiac. But while the first movie holds out the hope that the Manansala family, despite the death of the patriarch, will endure and, in a manner of speaking, rise from the lahar of Pinatubo, there’s little of hope that the Pineda family in “Serbis” will survive another snowballing enervation. So while “Kaleldo” is poetic and expressionist, “Serbis” is corrosively naturalistic and even pessimistic.

In a way, Mendoza returns to the style of “Masahista,” his commanding directorial debut, which is also both evocatively expressionist and intensely realist. The stylistic cycle seems bridged and more than embodied by the presence of Coco Martin in both movies. When his character leaves the movie house at the end, is he trying to escape the marriage that his aunt, always ruled by a basic sense of justice, has committed to his pregnant girlfriend? Can’t he live up to the family’s name? Is he dealing a death-blow to the crumbling family in Family? As in “Masahista” where Martin’s character falls asleep in the bus returning him to the city and its cruel flesh trade, there’s a dreamlike ambience when Coco Martin flees the theater. But there’s no wistful romanticism here. In a pavement, a man starts small talk with a younger man, and the viewer suspects it’s only a matter of time before their conversation becomes a sexual transaction and they end up like the gnarled bodies in the darkness of the theater. In fact, we’re restored to the movie’s metacinematic conceit as the scene we’re watching starts to burn up, the celluloid set to blaze by the heat of the projector, the film cracking up in smoke and fire, like the paint peeling off and the ceiling about to collapse at Family cinema, Dante’s Purgatorio in another space and time, both a cleansing toward higher realms and a descent to depths just a step removed from Hell.

By Mike Rapatan

BRILLANTE Dante Mendoza’s “Serbis” presents a heady slice of life in the daily grind of Family theater, a rundown movie house in Angeles, Pampanga owned and operated by the Pineda family. In several steady and ambulant long takes, Mendoza takes us into the dark and winding corridors and dank and skanky corners of the shady theater and slowly reveals the grungy lives of both the audience who patronize the theater and the family members who in one way or another strive to survive.

True to his professional roots (having worked as production designer in films like “Takaw Tukso” before he became a film director), Mendoza’s choice of the Family theater is not simply geographic but also metaphorical. Aside from using the movie theater as the setting of the story’s action, Mendoza sets up the theater as a key visual motif of his subtext of moral disintegration. Behind the movie house’s derivative Art Deco exteriors, Mendoza exposes the theater as a breeding ground of decay spawning in different directions as evinced by the toilets overflowing with unflushed piss, the wanton and carnivalesque sex in the projection room and audience area and most pointedly, by the emotional entanglements among the Pineda family members.

Like the circuitous layout of the theater’s staircases, relations among the Pineda family members are skewed and twisted. Nanay Flor (the family matriarch played with stunning force by Gina Pareño) files a bigamy case against her husband but loses due to counter testimony given in court by her son Jerome (Dan Alvaro). Her daughter Nayda (Jaclyn Jose) escapes the drudgery of her management and ticket booth duties by being nonchalant with her bland husband Lando (Julio Diaz) and flirting with her studly cousin Ronald (Kristoffer King) who in turn stages his own private trysts in the projection room where he works. Alan (Coco Martin), Nanay Flor’s nephew and billboard painter, tries to ward off Merly (Mercedes Cabral) after she discloses her pregnancy by him and presses for marriage.

On one level, it may seem that the film intends to delineate in great detail the parallels between the Pineda family’s travails and the movie house’s decrepit character. But as the film progresses, the film takes to another level the significance of the visual simile by suggesting that a key purveyor to the Pineda family’s economic predicament is the alienation of cinema from the lives of the audience. Unlike Guiseppe Tornatore’s “Cinema Paradiso” where film was an object of fascination and awe, cinema in the world of the Family theater has ceased to be of any meaning and value to its perverse denizens. The moviegoers do not even seem to be interested in watching the campy porno films onscreen. The “For Adults Only” sign at the theater lobby and the long screening time of the double-bill features provide ample excuse for the audience to cruise around and satisfy their carnal desires. In fact, the audience may have grown callous to their lust that the sight of a stray goat has provided more excitement and titillation for them compared to the tricks they usually pick up and service in the shadows. The pleasures of the flesh have replaced the pleasures of cinema.

Who then is to blame for this turn of events? Is it the audience whose tastes defy prediction? Or is the burden on the producers who package film as commodities meant to be consumed and marketed to the lowest common denominator? These questions are as old as the proverbial chicken and egg problem and Mendoza’s film certainly does not aim to resolve these issues. What it aims to do is to subtly unfold and capture in a realistic yet dire way the complexity of our collective descent into a purgatorial state of cinema.