Volume 78 - Number 36 / February 4 - 10 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Koch on Film

“Serbis” (-)

Looking through The New York Times I came across a review of this film which intrigued me. In her review, Manohla Dargis wrote, “Gentle, bawdy and at times rambunctiously, ticklishly rude, the Filipino movie Serbis opens with the camera ogling a naked woman preening before a mirror. ‘I love you,’ she coos to her reflection, ‘I love you,’ as the camera’s point of view drifts between her face and breasts. In most movies this scene might foretell a predictable exercise in exploitation cinema. But the talented director Brillante Ma. Mendoza is after something slyer and more thoughtful than easy nudity for his latest, a story about a dilapidated movie theater and the fractured family that is trying not to disintegrate further inside its derelict walls.”

I took the bait and went to see it. The movie is boring and worthless.

“Serbis” is a docudrama about the Pineda family which runs a porno movie theater in Angeles City in the Philippines. The cinema house is frequented by those, particularly tourists, looking for male and female prostitutes. Lots of sex takes place while the movie unfolds before them. There is nothing erotic about the whole misadventure. Among the subplots are one involving Mama’s (Gina Pareno) ongoing court battles with her husband, whom we never see, and an unexpected pregnancy. Pareno stood out in this film despite her dreary role. Given a decent part, she could do a first-rate job.

The only person who might enjoy this film would be a sociologist interested in the seamy side of Filipino life. Imelda Marcos and her enormous shoe collection dominated America’s thinking about that country for a long time. The seamy side should normally be more fascinating. In this film, it is not. (In Tagalog, with English subtitles.)

HS said: This movie is not as bad as the Senior Critic believes. From the title, I first thought it was about Serbs and Croats, but it turns out to be the Spanish word for ‘service.’ In this film it refers to purchased sexual service, offered and received. I found the film to be a slice of Philippine low life, a dysfunctional family in a huge movie theater, now a porn house, with an audience largely gay although the film fare is hetero. You see the surrounding neighborhood which fascinated me, as the characters go through their soap opera existence. The matriarch is the head of the house, and has more common sense than the next two generations. The faded surroundings are dismal to watch, and the characters are anguished. There is some action and a bit of humor. But in the end, the picture makes you feel lucky to be an American.

(In case you didn’t know, the U.S. won the Philippines from Spain by force in 1899, at the same time we acquired Puerto Rico and Guam. The U.S. then subdued bloody native insurrections, lost the islands to the Japanese in 1942, regained them after General Douglas MacArthur walked ashore on Leyte Beach, saying “I have returned.” The islands were given independence on July 4, 1946, with a constitution largely written by Navy Commander Julius C.C. Edelstein.)

“The Class” (+)

A very good picture, particularly during a period when there are so few good movies to see. People leaving an earlier show repeatedly described the film to me as “fabulous.” Take it from me. While it is very good and held my attention, it is far from fabulous. I believe the excessive description has to do with the nature of the movie.

The film, based on a novel by Francois Begaudeau entitled “Entre les Murs” (“Between the Walls.”), takes place in Paris. It is about teachers and students in a public high school. The racially-mixed class is made up of a substantial number of Muslims and blacks who are both Muslim and black. They could be, although the film does not say so, the children of the rioters in Paris who, aside from their hostility to Israel and Jews, were hostile to many white Parisians. They believed they had been mistreated by their French fellow residents and citizens.

An effort is made by the teachers to overcome the hostility conveyed by the students who for the most part are falling behind in their studies. Apparently, French public schools have disciplinary committees made up of teachers and student representatives. Classroom rules permit vocal aggressions to be played out by the students, and teachers must be very careful not to offend by using insulting words.

The principal teacher in the film is played by Francois Begaudeau who wrote the novel and was also one of the screen writers. He offends the students by calling some of them skanks which colloquially can mean prostitutes. One boy from Mali unintentionally slightly injures a fellow student when he storms from the classroom. He is later brought before a disciplinary committee, and the concern involved, primarily for dignity for all, is fascinating.

I was entranced by the give-and-take and fascinating dialogue in the classroom. The show that I went to was sold out. (In French, with English subtitles.)

PT said: This film reminds us that teaching is not just an ordinary 9 to 5 job but, rather, a “calling.” The teacher, Francois Bergaudaau, struggles to reach these difficult students, many with immigrant parents who have aspirations for their children. The focus is on the teacher as he works for small successes with these kids who don’t understand that improving their ability to read, write, and speak well in French will help them be successful adults in a tough world. It’s a frustrating and demanding job.

I was reminded of the English documentary film series, “7 Up,” “14 Up,” etc. which follows a number of youngsters to adulthood. One can almost always predict where these English kids will wind up as adults based on their school experiences and their social class. So, too, here we have a good idea of which kids will make it.”

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