Thursday, February 26, 2009

Review: "Serbis"

"Morality has two sides - absolute and relative."

In Brillante Ma. Mendoza's Serbis, morality isn't the only thing with two sides. In fact even the film's tagline is filled with double meaning. Because even amidst the squalor and ugliness of its gritty narrative, Serbis is above all a film about family.

Set in a rundown porn theater in the Philippines, Serbis is the story of the Pinedas, the family who owns the crumbling old movie house, and are falling apart as gradually as the building around them. Surrounded by poverty and crime, the theater is filled with "service boys," male prostitutes who service the gay patrons (hence the name, Serbis, or Service). The theater, aptly called "Family," is a haven of sorts for the displaced and impoverished citizens of the town who are not only looking to pass the time, but to survive.

But the Pinedas have troubles of their own. The family matriarch, Nanay Flor, is locked in a bitter bigamy case against her husband, and feels betrayed by her son for testifying in his father's favor. Her daughter, Nayda, who guides us through most of the film, is the fragile glue that holds the place together, stuck in a marriage she regrets and grappling with forbidden feelings toward her own cousin. Nayda's nephew, Alan, has accidentally gotten a young girl pregnant, causing the family to scramble for a quick wedding, while Alan deals with a painful, and all too symbolic, boil right on his ass.

Serbis is not a pretty film. Director Mendoza (The Masseur) does not shy away from the unattractive truths of the situations that make up his film. In fact, some of the film's more disturbing images have drawn criticism by some reviewers who found the film too repulsive. It's interesting, however, to read the director's own remarks on the subject as written in the film's press kit that touch on that very subject.

One of the film's more graphic (and memorable) images is that of Alan's boil, and his eventual lancing of it with a glass bottle. It is a scene that is difficult to watch, and rightly so, but it's symbolism as a literal "pain in the ass" is hard to deny, as are the symbolic implications for the character and the family as a whole. Mendoza is asking at what point does morality become absolute? In a world of abject poverty and extreme hardship, what exactly is immoral what it comes to your own survival?

Serbis is very much a slice of life film, following the daily activities inside the theater that make up the lives of the characters. These people are forced to make tough decisions every day, and the film's central moral conundrum is summed up by the service boys, many of whom are underage, cavorting in illicit encounters in the inky shadows of the dilapidated theater, that is collapsing every bit as gradually as the family that owns it.

In that regard, Serbis is a feast of symbolism - from backside boils to cracked mirrors as a window into a wounded soul, to a wild goat running loose in the theater, it is a a much richer, much deeper film than it immediately appears to be on the surface.

Mendoza's roving camera captures his characters strife and pain with an unblinking eye, and despite an often muddy sound mix (remedied for English speaking audiences by subtitles), Serbis comes to bustling life with the hard scrabble existence of a family just trying to get by. And we, as the audience, are confronted with hard questions right up until the haunting final frame, about a world where morality has lost its meaning in the face of sheer survival.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

SERBIS; Directed by
Brillante Ma. Mendoza; Stars Gina Pareno, Jaclyn Jose, Julio Diaz, Coco Martin, Kristopher King, Dan Alvaro, Mercedes Cabral, Roxanne Jordan; Rated R for sexual content, nudity and language; In Tagalog w/English subtitles

2 comments:

nick plowman said...

I had a feeling you'd like it more than me, but in a way I am glad you did. Most people seem to think highly of it.

Matthew Lucas said...

I can see how some people wouldn't like it...idk why it hit me the way it did but I really liked it a lot.