With little more than the increasingly irritating sound of a film projector clanking loudly over simple white opening credits, Brillante Ma. Mendoza’s latest film, Serbis (“Service”) opens with a young girl getting dressed at the beginning of her day.
Jewel (Roxanne Jordan) is getting dressed so she can accompany Mama Nanay Flor (Gina Pareño) to court where Mama Flor fully expects her husband to be found guilt of adultery and put away for more than two years. Her daughter Nayda (Jaclyn Jose) continues with the business of running the movie house. Her husband Lando (Julio Diaz) is the everyman of the place, taking care of everything from the food service in the front to chasing out a goat that finds its way into the theater. All day long, Alan (Coco Martin) is nursing a boil while trying to digest the news that girlfriend Meryl (Mercedes Cabral) is pregnant and Ronald (Kristofer King) has been swiping clothes that he wants to lay claim to.
In all its grit and grim, the rundown multi-leveled movie house is quite aesthetically entrancing. With its seemingly random network of marbled stairs, graffitied walls and long halls littered with lost souls selling sex, the dilapidated building feels very much like a hollow, cold labyrinth from which none of these people can escape. Although the doors and windows are right there, the feeling of confinement is almost palpable.
There are only a few select moments where the filmmaker asks his audience to invest emotionally into this story. A few isolated moments of reflexion, a roaming shot of a collage of photos, diplomas, smiling young faces filled with promise and hope, only to pan left to the same broken mirror, the place where the film began with a young girl practicing kisses and adoring chants of “I love you”, now occupied by a withered middle-aged woman, who mostly likely practiced the same sweet nothings and the same single sided kisses in her youth before that same broken mirror.
Serbis is a film for the voyeur and the students of homo sapiens in their natural habitat. It is what reality television would be like, if reality television was not in fact so blatantly engineered, manipulated and falsely packaged as non-fiction. The drama unfolds leisurely without any real catalyst or foreshadowing to suggest where the story might go next. The people of this world suffer an internal struggle that never manifests itself into real action to change their circumstances.
This tale of poverty and dreams deferred is a strangely compelling one. On the one hand, the level of acceptance of one’s station in life and the loyalty certain characters show for their extended family is to be commended On the other hand, it’s difficult to understand how these character do not simply rebel and, being able bodied, abandon the lives they have been dealt.
All, that is, except one.
Serbis is presented in Tagalog with English subtitles and is currently playing at the Sunset Laemmel 5 in West Hollywood.