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The Scapegoat in Brillante Mendoza’s Serbis (2008) July 2, 2008

Posted by Richard Bolisay in Asian Films, Noypi.
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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. * * *

Comments»

1. Oggs Cruz - July 2, 2008

Great read, Chard, and thanks for that mini-lesson on Lao’s real-time.

2. Richard Bolisay - July 5, 2008

Thanks Oggs,

Lao is actually one of the best professors I had in the university. Learned a lot! (am not sure if I was able to apply it in my school works though, haha)

3. Monch - August 8, 2008

I got to “know” Bing Lao when i was tasked by Regal Films to line-produce one of his Palanca scripts “Pinilakan”. After months of pre-production work for the Jeffrey Jeturian adaptation of “Pinilakan”, re-titled “Tuhog”, the movie was shelved for the nth time, prompting me to abandon the project and cut my ties with the film company.

we never got past being mere acquaintances.. i believe he wouldn’t even remember me at all.. but i still vividly remember the unique and awesome experience I had after reading through his screenplay that since then i became a Lao disciple.

Kim Voynar’s lashing critique of “Serbis” emotionally triggered my general prejudice against indie films. I had not seen the film at that time, in fact, any of Brillante Mendoza’s works for that matter, and yet, i unusually supported her disgust over the film’s “yucky” and “exploitive” treatment… even dismissing Sean Penn’s partiality to the film as a mere press release.

But all these have changed after i watched the film. Again, i am not gifted with the glib film critics are known for, but i have the eye and the sensibilities to appreciate and distinguish a true jewel from a pseudo work of art.

While “Serbis” is far from being a masterpiece, it is an honest but stark depiction of a humdrum existence and the miseries of poverty. It reeked of filth and evoked a sad monotony of daily survival. Whatever the film lacks in terms of other critics pov, I no longer concern myself. For I judge each work as it is, and not as I would have wanted it to be.

Both “Serbis” and “Tirador” made me appreciate my lot more than i actually do… and made me wince, flinch, and ponder on their hopelessness and emptiness….

Thanx for Lao’s Real Time in Scriptwriting 101. By the way, I’m beginning to be your disciple as well… ahehe…

4. Richard Bolisay - August 9, 2008

Wonderful anecdote and insight, Monch.

And just one note, I know it sounds artificial, but in the context of Filipino attitude towards critics, I cannot consider myself one (yet). Perhaps it would be more considerate if people consider writers who write their views about a certain film as journalists who seek understanding, in lieu of truth, to promote a rational national cinema. Our judgment is as important as yours, or as any other people for that matter, except for those whose intention is only to make themselves popular, spread their egos, and pry on the unimportant, because in essence, they really have nothing to say – – some people just love chaos, I guess. The only difference is that we write – – and you read, that’s all. Other than that, we share the same appreciation or argument. Sadly, it’s too difficult to put up with a discussion here in the Web – – anonymity becomes a weapon among some people.

Sorry for that, I know it’s boring. Hehe. Are you still working in the film industry now? Hire me there! Hehe. And continue supporting local cinema!

5. Monch - August 9, 2008

ahehe.. i left the scene in 2005.. went to advertising and now i work full time as a Web Content Writer in posh Makati..

but i’m raring to make a comeback.. (ahaha).. honestly i do.. after seeing a lot of disappointments in the indie scene.. i feel like some films are intentionally being made to appear crude or raw when they could really polish everything..

but as i used to settle for a production post, this time i want to try my hands in the creative aspect of directing..

lack of budget is not an excuse to come up with a mediocrity.. who knows, if given a break, i might hire you as a creative consultant.. ahehe

i thank you for your insightful reviews.. really.. how i wish i have all the time in the world to read all your blogs and catch up on all those wonderful ideas i’ve missed all these times.. just keep it coming, dude.. sooner or later.. i’ll catch up.. :-)

6. Richard Bolisay - August 11, 2008

Web writing pays so lame, I left it. Haha. I agree with some of your “frustrations” about the indie scene, but then again, it’s a development. It’s moving on, it’s struggling, it’s striving for betterment – – it’s a good sign. Perhaps years from now, things will change. And we’re on the map once again.

I also thank you for dropping by, Monch. It always feels great to have someone appreciating one’s effort in uplifting local cinema. Now that it’s alive, I hope everyone gives his share in sustaining its fire.

7. sydjun - March 8, 2010

yuckz..parang flirt eeww….bold star pala si coco martin..tsk tsk sayang crush ko pa naman sya…hmmppff

8. mhakulet - September 9, 2010

ah ah sayang ka coco ako na lang sana yung iyong sineserbis …

9. mhakulet - September 9, 2010

bongga ka sa akin coco martin yami ang katawan tsup tsup


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