Serbis screens the last adult picture show

A Golden Palm nominee at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, Serbis is like no multigenerational slice-of-life film you’ve ever seen. Philippine director Brillante Mendoza sets his bumptious drama at a failing adult movie house in the sprawling Philippine city of Angeles. The Pineda family not only manages the porn theater, but they also live under its roof, just a few flights of stairs away from films such as Bedmates and Young Screwpine.

Serbis’ first scene sets a tone of exhibitionism and voyeurism, as a teenage daughter vamps in the nude before a mirror while her schoolboy nephew peeps at her. The ironically named Family movie theater practically simmers with surging libidos. A young would-be painter lances a boil on his buttock in an early close-up, which interferes with his girlfriend’s subsequent visit. The Pinedas presumably turn a blind eye to the down-low prostitution that accompanies the screenings, as young rent boys and she-males ask “Serbis?” to prowling movie patrons. Serbis resembles the bawdiest work of novelist John Irving, or perhaps trash filmmaker John Waters’ most serious moments.

The film moves from morning to evening at a leisurely pace as members of the Pinedas family get dressed, eat meals at the theater’s café, wander off and return with new characters. The exact relationships aren’t always clear, especially because Mendoza throws curves at the viewer, including a gay uncle married to a woman. The primary conflict involves the owner and matriarch Nanay Flor (Gina Pareño), who’s suing her estranged husband for bigamy. The grown children feel conflicted, disapproving of their father’s behavior without wanting to send him to jail. With Nanay in court for much of the movie, her adult daughter, Nayda (Jacklyn Jose), holds down the fort.

Mendoza’s camera only occasionally leaves the confines of the movie theater, although through doors and windows we frequently see the streets, teeming with cars, carts, horse-drawn carriages and every other imaginable Third World conveyance. Mendoza’s content to follow characters up and down the dingy staircases and into cramped kitchens, flooded bathrooms and tiny bedrooms crammed with nude paintings. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a film that conveyed such a strong sensation of smell. The celluloid images practically reek of vinegar, paint, tobacco smoke and cooking oil.

Sharing a home with the adult cinema seems to desensitize the Pinedas to raunchy activities, while bringing their own desires further into the open, like the teenage daughter who learns to comport herself sluttishly. Serbis affirms the consequences of sexuality, however, with the case of the nephew who impregnates his girlfriend, despite being completely unprepared to support her. Serbis offers some outlandish examples of people following their hormones, yet may also simply chronicle the natural result of a contemporary household bombarded with sexual images. The Family theater seems not that far removed from a middle-class suburb, where sexual come-ons are a time-honored marketing technique and any household with an Internet connection can become a peep show with just a few clicks.

Serbis captures other forms of extreme behavior, such as an impromptu goat chase through the theater, or an argument over a T-shirt that explodes into a brawl and almost sends one fighter off a balcony. Generally, Mendoza would rather observe characters going about mundane actions than give them speeches or other opportunities for self-reflection. At one point, Nayda looks out a window and says to herself, “I’m a certified nurse. What am I doing here?” but the film holds out few answers, except perhaps that she’s offering a different kind of nursing care to her relatives.

Jose and Pareño nevertheless give soulful, melancholy performances that elicit sympathy from the audience. Pareño, a grand dame of Philippine cinema, turns Nanay into a figure worthy of Tennessee Williams, an imperious embodiment of old-world virtue who finds herself staggered by modern life. Pareño gets her own brief nude scene while bathing that conveys dignity and vulnerability. At such moments, Serbis suggests that human beings are more than simply slaves to their impulses.