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"Serbis" is the Tagalog word, derived from "service," with which hustlers proposition potential customers. It is, in other words, a question. I'm not sure why Brillante Mendoza used it as the title for his film about Nanay Flor Pineda and her clan; a better choice might have been "Family," the very ironic name of the theatre that the Pinedas operate in Angeles City, the Philippines. A movie palace built sometime just before or after World War II, the Family is a poured-concrete landmark with flights of stairs that dream of the Palais Garnier. But the Family's glitzy days are long gone. Now a marginal, scattershot business, the theatre shows low-grade straight pornography to predominantly male homosexual audiences. I'm not sure that "audiences" is the right word, though, since most of the small handful of habitués pay no attention whatsoever to the screen. More entertaining by far is the show unselfconsciously staged by the somewhat more numerous loiterers on the stairs. The Family is a plaza of sorts. The Pinedas struggle to maintain it even as they try to ignore it.

Another ironic title for this excellent movie would have been "Fertility." The Family's patrons don't have to worry about it, which makes them as carefree as butterflies in contrast to the Pineda women, whose lives have been shipwrecked by unwanted pregnancies. Nanay Flor (Gina Pareño) has been spending a fortune trying to have her husband jailed as a bigamist, or at least formally separated from her; her son, Jerome (Dan Alvaro) has testified on his father's behalf, but as a way of disinheriting his half-siblings. Jerome's sister, Zinaida (Jacklyn Jose) — Nayda— is a qualified nurse whose career never got off the ground; she is stuck with Jonas, a son whom she loves (Bobby Jerome Go) and Lando, a husband whom, at best, she pities (Julio Diaz). One of the young cousins or nephews whom Nanay Flor has taken in, Alan (Coco Martin), has impregnated his girlfriend, Merly (Mercedes Cabral). Another, Ronald (Kristoffer King) is the true object of Nayda's affections, although the film seems almost as determined as Nayda herself to keep this from us.

In one of the pithiest scenes in the movie, Nayda is horrified to discover, among a thicket of graffiti on a staircase wall, a heart with her name and Ronald's inscribed within it; over the heart, the well-wisher has scribbled "Forever." Almost forgetting herself, Nayda puts down her basket of laundry and lets her mother continue up the stairs alone. Then she energetically applies a rag to the red writing. Effacing it is not easy. The camera pulls away a bit, so that we see the full physical struggle of the woman as she rubs furiously at the mark, her body unconsciously simulating the throes of copulation. In another scene, Nayda peers out through the theatre's arabasque facade at a couple of nuns, one of whom stumbles in the street. She almost laughs, and we know what she's thinking: the nuns don't know how easy their lives are — or how unreal.

These are the moments in which Nayda the woman peeks through the impassive front of Zinaida the bourgeoise. It is Zinaida who assures a poor woman, carrying a baby, that her underage son would never have been admitted to the theatre — and that therefore he can't be turning tricks in the aisles. The mother wants only to see for herself, but she can't afford a ticket, and Zinaida is not about to let her in for free — especially if scandal will ensue. The pathos on the mother's face ranks with any Pietà in the canon. Later, we may remember that little Jonas, who can't be any older than eight, routinely spies upon many unseemly doings in the theatre's darker corners: what will he grow up to be like?

Almost upstaging the human wounds in Serbis, however, is condition of the theatre itself. It has aged very badly, and can no longer be kept even reasonably clean. How did that goat get onto the stage? There's a hole in the wall. Worse, the plumbing is failing. At one point, Alan is dispatched to clean out a backed-up men's room. Most of the tile floor lies beneath a thin sheet of dirty water, and, without showing anything actually disgusting, Mr Mendoza confronts the audience with the full horror of incorrigibly clogged drains. Later, Nanay Flor takes a bath — but not in a tub. She scoops small buckets of water from the tub and pours it over herself as she squats on the floor. The water that sluices away from her is clear, but the worn tile, the eroded grout, and the utterly boggy drain are sure to repel ordinary American viewers — a reaction that the filmmaker appears to anticipate.

Mr Mendoza's conceit is to give us a day in the life of the Pineda family. Just as there doesn't seem to be much of a regular schedule, there is nothing systematic about the presentation of family secrets. Merly's little problem is wrenched to the surface, and Flor's husband is acquitted of bigamy, but other issues are presented more obliquely. Nayda and Ronald do not exchange a meaningful glance until the end of the picture (and Lando notices it). Most elided of all is the loss of Danny, Jerome's presumably younger brother, whose death is not explained. It is just another heartbreak memorialized on Flor's dresser.

Is it just provincial of me, or am I right to detect thick traces of an American backwash in Serbis, as though the servicemen who used to be so thick on the ground on Luzon had left a spoor of Yankee rubbish? When a flotilla of affluent gay men sashay across the screen in the international language of hairburners, it's a moment of the rankest cultural imperialism.

The production values of Serbis, Mr Mendoza's first 35-mm film, are on a par with the Family itself, which means that a lot of detail is blessedly murky. Although he deserves big budgets for his projects in future, it's good that Mr Mendoza didn't have a lot of money to spend on Serbis, because he was thus obliged to focus on Flor, Zinaida, and his other characters; not surprisingly, human faces are clearly readable in camera work too dodgy to capture much of anything else. There is one scene in which Ms Pareño (born 1950) acquires a deep glamour. Ms Jose is never granted such a moment, but she lights up much of the film with a vernacular beauty composed mostly of wary goodwill. Any plan of not caring for her Nayda doesn't stand a chance. Both women manifest iconic resignation in shots through the box-office window. Serbis may hearken back to the great days of post-war neorealismo, but we won't be calling it "derivative." We'll be thanking Mr Mendoza for remembering how to make a strong and steady film. (February 2009)

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