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Serbis: What’s Showing in Mendoza’ s Family Theater

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By Dr. Bienvenideo Lumbera

Brillante Mendoza has two stars in the movie Serbis. The first is a moviehouse that has seen glorious days as a magnificent film palace and has declined with the years into a decrepit theater home to soft-porn movies and to patrons in search for sexual encounters of the third kind. The second is a human monument, tall and regal dowager-actress Gina Pareño who plays a matriarch who has sued the husband who abandoned her for another woman and when the movie begins, she is anticipating the husband’s conviction.

The film opens with a sequence showing the youngest daughter of the matriarch, fresh from a bath, naked and preening before a mirror while repeatedly whispering “I love you” to her reflection, all the while being observed by a little voyeur of a nephew from the half-open door. She picks out a red dress and puts it on. Oldest daughter Nayda (Jaclyn Jose) chances upon Jewel and orders her to take off the red dress. Jewel groans a protest but obeys. Nayda is inspecting the rooms in the theater, and as she wanders through the corridors, we see lurid movie posters and inhibitory signs of “Do Not” plastered all over the walls. As it turns out, love is not to be found in Family Theater; it is sex as love’s substitute that prevails in the hall. Assignations are made in the passageways and the lobbies where gays offer “serbis” to patrons who would respond. Fellatio takes place in the dark and even openly in the projection room.

The absence of love is to be perceived in the relationship between Nayda and her husband (Julio Diaz)’ The latter functions as the “mother” of the house, cooking, running the eatery, doing the laundry and taking their son to school and fetching him after dismissal time. Serving as an all-round janitor and handyman is a young man who has a boil in his groin, Coco Martin as Alan is badgered by his girl friend he has made pregnant to legitimize her pregnancy through marriage perhaps. Alan is a relative of the family and it will facilitate legitimation if he is to tell Mama about the problem.

Mendoza does not have a narrative to tell but moves from detail to detail to make the audience aware of the serious social statement that he wants to put across. He is a master at suggesting the cultural values of Filipino family life, and Serbis displays the many layers that underline relationships of parents and children in a provincial town.

Mama is incensed that her son Jerome has testified in defense of his father, and she is grieved by the knowledge that even Nayda is on the side of her father in the court case she is pursuing. When the crushing court decision comes acquitting her adulterous husband, Mama is stunned by what she saw as the judge’s betrayal of her trust in the law. She comes home to Family Theater and is greeted with Alan’s confession of his sexual misadventure. Gina Pareno’s explosion showcases her mature handling of emotion in depicting the cumulative merging of frustration and outrage that struck Mama after the loss of her court case, the prospect of inevitable expenditure that Alan’s marriage would occasion, and the solitariness of the mother abandoned by her children.

In a serio-comic sequence after her fury has subsided, Mama is inspecting the laundry left to dry in a bathroom in the theater. Nayda calls attention to the flooded floor and how water has ruined her shoes. Pareño takes off her shoes and sits down clutching the pair, lamenting that they were new and now ruined. Mendoza stages this moment with utter sensitivity, making his audience participate in the implacable grief of a woman in utter defeat.

In the meantime that Mama’s tragedy is unravelling, the procession outside the theater has begun to move, and Alan has come to a decision to get out of Family Theater. The crush of people in the procession is met by Alan, almost like a swimmer moving against the tide, as he walks in the opposite direction. In a dark portion of the street, two figures are conversing, and we recognize that a sexual transaction is about to take place. At this point, the screen seems to melt and we realize that we are seeing a strip of celluloid burning in the projector, and Serbis has come to a close.

We remember that earlier, when the titles were being flashed on the screen, the jerkiness of the images and the sound of sprockets of the projector running were suggestions that we were about to watch a movie made in the old-fashioned way. When the film burns and the movie comes to an end, what is Mendoza trying to tell us? If the detail pertains to the Alan-plot, it seems to be telling us that the young man, in walking out of Family Theater, has willed to live the real life outside the theater, risking the impositions of the social milieu and possibly arriving at a measure of maturity and responsibility as a young man.

If the detail is directed at us, the audience, Mendoza is telling us that our society has been lied to by the films it has patronized and we are asked to prefer countering the direction of the procession toward a more lucid perception of the real state of Philippine society. Whatever his intention projected through a simple cinematic image, Mendoza has bequeathed us with a brilliant film that ought to be remembered as a moral “serbis” to Filipino film-lovers.