Set on Christmas Day's eve in a predominantly Catholic neighborhood, Jeffrey Jeturian's Bisperas (Eve) details a family's return from the traditional panunuluyan, a re-enactment of Joseph and Mary's search for a place to stay involving the members of the parish, only to discover that their house has been robbed. As they account for what has been stolen from their belongings, long-kept secrets are uncovered, revealing the ironic dysfunctions of what seems to be a model middle-class Filipino family.
The film is deceptively simple. It faithfully follows the dysfunctional family trope, with no sharp turns in the narrative, just incidents piling upon incidents until everything explodes predictably at the dinner table. It is shot with hardly any pretense for cinematic prettiness or flair, just the drab interiors of a typical subdivision house, illuminated only by sparse room and Christmas lights. It is expertly edited, with scenes stitched together in near seamless fashion, importantly establishing continuity in the story that exists within a very short period of time.
Bisperas is a superbly acted film. Tirso Cruz III plays the beleaguered patriarch with controlled ferocity. Raquel Villavicencio, on the other hand, playing the family's very tolerant matriarch, blends into the subtle drama with admirable ease, putting in a mannered performance until the exact moment when hysterics become necessary. As the couple's grown children, Julia Clarete, Jennifer Sevilla, and Edgar Allan Guzman give the brood of discordant adults ample chemistry, making the strict distinction between emotional attachment and distance among them so deliciously apparent.
It is as if the film was willfully made to look ordinary and feel familiar, owing to Jeturian's agenda of having the film mirror the pretentiousness of the Philippines' bourgeoisie, a class as beholden as any other to the Catholic Church but displays such attachment to religion with near-absurd pomp. By bookending the film with public displays of faith and religiosity, where it appears that the Church has been successful in tending its flock to follow the ways of Christianity, Jeturian enunciates the ungodly difference between what is displayed in public and what is kept from public.
Jeturian sprinkles the film with a little too much of symbolisms and visual cues that make it a tad more pedantic than what is required to effectively communicate its message. Uneven only because of certain portions when the film is carried away by an understandable eagerness to reveal the failures of an overbearing Church and its shallow flock, Bisperas is a film that triumphs when it is low key, when its affronts to Catholic hypocrisy are gestured instead of zealously announced.
(Cross-published in Lessons from the School of Inattention.)