Michael Christian Cardoz's impressive debut feature film Rancherostarts on the morning of the final day in prison of Ricardo (Archi Adamos). Ricardo, or Carding as he is fondly called by his fellow inmates, is in charge of the kitchen, where he, his pal Miyong (Garry Lim), and other fortunate inmates, are tasked with turning meager ingredients into something edible for the thousands of hungry prisoners. The film opens with an astounding long take: beginning with an observant close up of Ricardo face, struggling to wake up, then the camera zooms out allowing us to see Ricardo stretching his back and arms, before going to the cell's bathroom (a pitiful space where the only thing that separates the toilet from the cots is a cement partition) where he uses up whatever water is left in a plastic jug to wash his face. He then takes a piss, carefully timing his urination to assure that it makes the least sound possible. The camera zooms out some more, revealing the state of the cell: filthy and overcrowded, with at least five or more inmates sleeping on the remaining beds or the floor.
The film's opening shot is remarkable not only because of the technical proficiency (where in a single shot, Cardoz was able to map the topography and atmosphere of a cramped prison space) displayed but because in a matter of a little bit more than five minutes, it was able to define Ricardo's character and the setting where Ricardo's story is set. It's been said that to truly know a man, one has to observe him in his sleep. Cardoz twists the trope a little bit further, implicating that a man's waking-up routine mirrors a sizable chunk of his personality. Ricardo, from the way he prolongs sleep up to that final possible second, acknowledges knows the value of sleep: a respite from the oft-painful realities and routine of prison life.
Ricardo's compassion lies in the fact that he respects his cell mates' sleep, making sure that his morning routine will not cause his cell mates to awake prematurely thus allowing them the freedoms of their sleep-time fantasies for a few more minutes. The film's compassion lies in the fact that it doesn't mine the stereotypes of prison life but instead counteracts it. The provincial jail ofRanchero is a lot sunnier than usual with inmates who are a lot friendlier than usual. One can even say that despite the rusty metal bars, the grime, and requisite bullies, prison life actually ain't that bad.
The prison setting accommodates Cardoz's tale that subtly dissects the role of fate and circumstance in a life that is forced to exist in routine and predictability. Inmates wake up at an exact time. They are served their meals as scheduled. Although they wait years to be released, there are premiums for good behavior and service, subtracted from their sentences with mathematical accuracy. However, somewhere between the cracks of habit, are instances wherein the often cruel machinations of fate step in. Habit is addictive, as we can tell from the inmates' fear of leaving prison in exchange of the freedom and unpredictability of the outside world. Ricardo is going through his last day of institutionalized routine of waking up early, of chopping vegetables into stars, of cooking meals and delivering them to the several rancheros (prison mayors) to distribute to the inmates, and of spending idle time smoking cigarettes with Miyong. He is a mere day away from joining the rest of humanity, and be swept wherever fate leads him.
However, Ricardo, although self-assured of his liberty, is not exempt from fate's final prank. During that afternoon when everything seemed as certain as day and night, a knife is discovered missing from the kitchen, pushing Ricardo out of the comforting monotony of knowing exactly what will happen the following day. Rancheroends in utter ambiguity: Ricardo sits alone in the kitchen while the camera zooms out revealing the the kitchen staff in total disarray, unable to come up with something for dinner after the brawl since everything they cooked were burnt. The camera zooms out some more, revealing the posters of Jesus Christ and other saints that are plastered on the wall (a beautiful parting shot that emphasizes how small and subservient humans are to the dictates of the powers that be). Ricardo sits still and alone, obviously distraught, confused, and perhaps fearing what may happen the next day since the brawl has effectively muddled the future that has been playing in his mind since the moment he opened his eyes that fateful morning.
Published first on Lessons From the School of Inattention but is re-published here after the film's screening in the Tioseco-Bohinc Film Series in Fully Booked Serendra,