Brillante Mendoza's day-in-the-life Filipino drama is set almost entirely within the confines of a cavernous, decrepit movie theater, run by an extended family who also make their home within its crumbling warrens. It's an all-hands-on-deck affair, from selling tickets to declogging the toilet to running a street-level fast-food café. The venue shows heterosexual porn, but its primary clientele are gay men who use the interior's dark nooks for sexual assignations. The theater's open lobby is virtually the sidewalk, and purse-snatchers and goats have no trouble drifting in.
The concept and depiction of this curious live-work arrangement is fascinating, and perhaps more so than the lightly sketched plot, which mostly covers the banalities of the day. Mendoza's handheld cameras often follow the characters in real time, up so many stairs, in sequences that take longer than the film's few dramatic revelations. While Serbis may lack in plot, Mendoza chooses to compensate with murky and mucky atmosphere: The film resonates with street noise, as well as virtual humidity and funky smells you're almost sure your nose detects.
We just get fleeting depictions of the sprawling family, which is deteriorating much like the decades-old movie theater. It's no surprise to learn that it's the two older women, each of whom soldiers through her life's disappointments, who are buttressing each structure. The theater (named "Family") and its inhabitants seem allegorical, depicting some stratum of urban Filipinos not just stagnating, but likely sliding backward. Traffic passes by ceaselessly outside, while members of the family retreat into ever-darker corners. Ultimately, only one character makes a break for the outside. Maybe. In several Filipino dialects, with subtitles. Starts Fri., April 24. Harris