The Scapegoat in Brillante Mendoza’s Serbis (2008) July 2, 2008Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Noypi.
Directed by Brillante Mendoza
Written by Armando Lao
Cast: Gina Pareño, Jaclyn Jose, Julio Diaz, Coco Martin, Mercedes Cabral
One must not forget that on the Day of Atonement, the Yom Kippur as the Jewish calls it, sacrifices are made aside from the usual fasting and abstinence.
What clearly marks the festival is the offering of two goats. According to de Plancy’s Dictionnaire Infernal, the first goat is offered to the Lord, its blood signifies atonement; the second, guarded by Azazel, will be placed before the high priest, his hands on its head to confess his iniquities and the iniquities of his people. Afterward, the goat will be led to the desert to set free. Azazel returns with the goat.
In Leviticus 20-23, it is mentioned that the emissary goat carries all the sins put forth into him in “an uninhabited land” before being set free in the desert.
Some mention that the goat is thrown over a cliff because its return is believed to cause evil. Furthermore, the enduring thought that prevails is that the sacrifice equates to sending back the sins to their origin – – the iniquities to the evil spirit. The goat’s escape to the wilderness, with all the sins of the people, is, in fact, where the term “scapegoat” originates.
Serbis competes in this year’s Cannes Film Festival; Mendoza is up against Clint Eastwood, Fernando Meirelles, the Dardenne Brothers, and Nuri Bilge Ceylan among others. The slim chance of winning the Palme d’Or is even aggravated by the fact that the film is lashed out by foreign critics, mostly by some who deem its boldness “yucky” and “exploitive,” (Kim Voynar in Live from Cannes: Gratuitous Yuckiness in ‘Serbis’ and Bad Euro-disco) and its tedium a “miserable slog” (Matt Noller). Meanwhile, Jay Weissberg’s fitting observation asserts that Mendoza’s “moving into pseudo-Tsai Ming-liang territory is unlikely to win the prolific helmer further converts.”
Luckily for our arthouse frontrunner Mendoza, who also gained recognition for Foster Child, Slingshot, and The Teacher, there are a few like Glenn Kenny who sheds enlightenment, but still ending up not recommending the film to his readers. Kenny mentions that “the hypnotic tedium of a life lived in underdevelopment and sensory overload and most likely oppressive humidity is, finally, effectively evoked,” and added, “beyond that, the viewer is out of luck.”
Even in a blindfold, I would prefer to believe the person who has seen the film in its entirety – – his judgment more grounded, less driven by mindless observations, and definitely more apprehensive. In just two paragraphs, Kenny has managed to narrate the story and offer us his view without letting his emotions overpower his words; thus, his dislike of the film becomes a humbling gesture, unlike the bantering chick who babbles seven paragraphs of descriptive yet null autopsy of a notorious criminal before getting a bite in a fancy cafe, her grave disappointment easily shifted just by a click of a remote.
In a country like the Philippines, they never know how it feels like when a pre-war theater closes down, after years of inactivity, of termites eating the luster of a bygone age, its Art-Deco furniture and design demolished, its memories stolen by time with no intention of giving back, just to give way to a mall, a colonial mall to remind us of virtual imperialism, as if it’s the last thing on earth that we need. True, it’s beside the point.
Serbis didn’t win, but the captive notoriety is enough to ignite trivial history.
Two things: either the cut presented here is a whole lot different from the version shown in the Festival or, as what is apparently inarguable, judgment is culture-specific. If it is the first one, then the incredulous existence of MTRCB helped; if it is the latter, then an argument is pointless.
Still, I go for the abolition of the Censorship Board; it hasn’t lived up to its name (it’s Movie and Television Review and Classification Board) and it serves only the common and the humdrum. Is it possible that proper posts be given to proper authorities?
It is acceptable that a man that has no background in film head a film festival; a title is just a title anyway. But when cinematic judgment is concerned, knowledge and competence are requisites – – intentions are always never enough. In fact, intentions mislead; they constrict fairness.
The BF ex-mayor and the BF critic are, I suppose, the same person; a double reminiscent of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Perhaps the greatest lesson that Bing Lao imparts to his students is the importance of real-time as a scriptwriting design. As my notes would tell:
1) real time follows Newtonian physics; the natural state of object is inertia wherein the subject is less than the object or its environment
2) story is empirical; it is referential and structured by principles of life
3) timeline is granular (it has a shorter time frame); it is also very detailed and focuses on the state of unrest
4) plotting is aleatory; it is spontaneous and unpredictable
5) character is objectified (character is created and described objectively); what you see is not described; handling of characters is also objective
6) exposition is ecological; events are triggered by the environment (external stimulus); thus, long scenes/takes are necessary to capture the authenticity and truthfulness (less director and editing intervention)
7) resolution is socially deterministic (milieu-oriented); the conflict arises between man and his environment/society; as expected, it ends ambiguously and sometimes ironic or absurd.
There are two other narrative modes that Lao described in our class: the dramatic time and the symbolic time; both are explained in detail as well, the difference between real time clarified.
My favorite exercise is when we did contiguous phrasing: one starts with a particular scene, then the other members of the group continue it without knowing anything about the story. Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul is said to employ this style in his early works.
These notes are published without permission from Lao. In this lack of initiative, however, I hope he understands how much he deserves proper recognition.
There must be something that Jeremy Ségay and his team saw in Serbis that is worthy of attention. In fact, jury president Sean Penn is rooting for it to win even a single award, the first in eight years after Raymond Red’s Anino, something historical to speak of, if press releases are to be believed.
Serbis is no less different from Mendoza’s previous works – – a story that is set in a marginal community, with characters that represent a manifold of experiences, an ethnographic view of a day in the community that attempts to capture the complete life of its people – – except from being written by Lao and funded sufficiently by foreign producers.
The various layers of domestic deterioration and the texture that each of its characters shows are to Lao’s credit; to be honest, in the grand scheme of things, everything that is good in Serbis is actually because of Lao’s unflinching rhetoric – – his writing style that bares the importance of simplicity yet it stays true in capturing the heart of things. Sadly, Mendoza’s insistence to adhere with his own style diminishes the impact of Lao’s story, the same way Foster Child falters in its vision (success can be defined in a million things), and despite his branding of “a different kind of realism” in his oeuvre, I still find it unbecoming, partly because of his consistent inconsistencies and incoherent fallacies.
If Mendoza has seen The Son by the Dardenne Brothers, there is no way that he wouldn’t be reminded of how crucial the camera movement is when it follows a character that walks. It is not simply a scene that trails the itinerary of the character – – it also amplifies the psychology of the people around him, his relation to his environment, and his inner demons tormenting him. The varying shots of Olivier Gourmet’s face and nape, from extreme close-up to medium shot, are exemplary in establishing his encounter with the juvenile who killed his son several years ago. The false intimacy it creates only adds to the fragility of the narrative. In Serbis, the long walks inside the rundown theater comprise more than half of the film in terms of virtual length – – it proves infinity – – yet in essence some of the shots are empty. The tedium remains a tedium.
The subtlety relies solely on its actors. Gina Pareño’s presence is like a man sitting beside you holding a grenade; you cannot take your eyes off her – – she is regal. Jaclyn Jose could have been more effective with less make-up (the powder on her face grabs more attention); nevertheless she has played her part very well, especially in that expository shot near the end. Julio Diaz remains as charming as he was twenty years ago. I like the way he downplays his role, because in the company of strong women, stupid men always have their role to play. Dan Alvaro, however, evokes sad nostalgia. The others – – Coco Martin, Mercedes Cabral, Kristoffer King – – are just pawns in a chess game.
Mendoza unburdens us of history – – which, at times, is just what we need. Only his present shows us a different history that is not far from the history that we refuse to see.
It could have been a film that succumbs to the white man’s burden but Serbis has gained my admiration for the parallelism of its two sequences.
First, a snatcher runs inside the theater. Hounded by the owners and the police, he almost has his escape, save for his shirt that stops him as he jumps over the staircase, hanging by a thread. It is the first interesting sequence of the film, as far as my memory is concerned; one for its absurdity, and second for its deadpan treatment.
Second, a goat, much to the surprise it brings both diegetically and non-diegetically, interrupts a film screening, particularly the sexual pursuits of the people inside the theater. In such peak of utterly senseless behavior, they run after it, hunting it down in a labyrinth of bodily fluids and screaming souls, until it finally leaves the theater. It is a Lao trademark – – the timeless absurdity.
The images tell that Serbis must be the scapegoat; I wonder when its shepherd will return. * * *