The director of Serbis has a lot to live up to. With a name like Brillante Mendoza, when you perform a massacre — to borrow a line from Ol' Dirty Bastard — you better be coming with some motherfucking shit that's spectacular. The late ODB is germane to Mendoza's latest film for a number of reasons: For one thing, Serbis is dirty as hell. It also features old people... and at least one bastard child, if not several.
Mendoza’s film is principally about the dynamics of a large, multi-generational family in the Philippines living through difficult times, and the place in which they live through them. His handheld, somewhat shaky camera follows the destitute Pinedas through the halls of the struggling porn movie theater they operate in a run-down section of Manila. Named, notably, “The Family,” the theater serves as a physical representation of the Pinedas' tattered existence. Mendoza films its crumbling walls and malfunctioning plumbing beautifully, and in juxtaposing “The Family” with the family that runs it, the director sets us up for an hour and a half virtually devoid of hope.
As the members of the Pineda family go through the motions of their daily lives, they display a conspicuous lack of concern for their station in life. Dirt poor and lacking any prospects for advancement in society, they have accepted with grim fatalism the inevitability of their short, disease-prone lives. The only Pineda to ever show signs of self-pity or moral outrage is the aging matriarch, Nanay Flor (Gina Pareño). Hers is a generation still steeped in the traditional Catholic values of Filipino culture, and we see her try to square her old-fashioned ideals with her life as the proprietor of a porno palace. As the Pinedas interact with the boys and men who populate the theater from sunrise to well after sunset, plying their trade to make enough money to eat for another day, the true scope of their desperation becomes achingly apparent. We come to understand that the completely unglamorous male prostitution that takes place in the theater is a necessity for all involved, so much so that no one who notices it even so much as bats an eye. The Pinedas and their patrons have become so desensitized to (sometimes mutual) exploitation that the only thing to throw them for a loop is a goat invading the theater.
Mendoza -- one of only two Filipino filmmakers to be nominated for the Palme D’Or -- is clearly informed by the best elements of Western filmmaking. His penchant for cinema verité and the jump cuts of the French New Wave are on proud display in Serbis, and both techniques lend themselves to the immediacy of the film’s moral import. The visceral and sometimes outright disgusting moments in this film might turn away more prudish viewers (there is, after all, an excruciatingly long scene of actual fellatio between a transvestite and a barely post-adolescent boy), but ultimately the sickening imagery is justified by the story, which would not pack the same emotional punch if the rough stuff was left out.
Flannery O'Connor once wrote that the problem with pornography isn't that it showed too much, but rather that it shows too little — it detaches a central part of life from all that surrounds it. According to O'Connor, the fantasy world of behavior detached from consequences acts upon the psyche as a drug, offering a false sense of hope and escape in the process. Once the fantasy is over, the subject is left worse off than before. Mendoza seems familiar with this theory, and Serbis' story arc reflects that. A constant cycle of meaningless physical contact and subsequent depression becomes a relentless machine, propelling the film onwards without a pause. Mendoza’s camera hardly ever stops moving, and the effect of this ceaselessness is breathtaking.