Kabisera (Borgy Torre, 2013)
Kabisera opens with a dream. It ends with a nightmare. Everything in between is a modern parable of skewed ambitions compromising traditional virtues. Torre has crafted a modern Faustian tale. The devil here is ambition, the dream that Andres wakes from in the start of the film. He realizes that dream, but at the price of his own humanity.
A humble fisherman who has contented himself to playing second fiddle to Jose (Art Acuna), his wealthy best friend, Andres is nonetheless the overly protective head of his family, controlling everything from his son’s college education to his daughter’s upcoming wedding. One morning, he finds two boxes of meth floating in the sea, opening for him an opportunity to keep his family within his watchful reach.
What happens next is nothing new in Philippine cinema, which has somewhat fetishized stories about virtuous men and women falling from grace. It comes natural in a country where class boundaries are vague, and the difference between being rich or poor is a single decision that compromises values. Torre aptly situates Andres’ dilemma within such a familiar circumstance. When Andres and his wife (Bing Pimentel) pursue the crooked path to easy riches, Torre affords no explanation, no intense characterization with a belief that their motivations are clearly spelled out by their dire straits. Morality simply takes the backseat in matters involving one’s family’s survival.
The tragedy of Kabisera is therefore not the loss of morality of Andres. He starts out as a man of ambition, dreaming only of good things for his family. Torre, both Borgy and Joel, portray him as a man with vague morals, grounded primarily by two things, his concern for his family and his loyalty to Jose. The tragedy therefore lies in the loss of Andres’ most utmost virtues. When pushed by criminal elements that he has not prepared himself for, he abandons friendship and unduly warps his position in the family.
Kabisera is inconsistently paced. Torre is gifted with creating tension out of quietude, as in Bonsai (2009), his short film about an obese man who is desperately in love with his neighbor, and prolonged conversations, as in Despedida (2010), his short film about a man and a woman who meet in a graveyard. Kabisera however feels like it lacks a certain balance, relishing in protracted moments of silence, or heated verbal exchanges between characters, before being distracted by rhythmic montages or listless sequences. It certainly drags in the middle, painstakingly addressing the process of Andres’ painful transformation via his dealings with drug dealers and corrupt cops, climaxing in the fruition of all his aggravating trespasses that is but inevitable.
Joel Torre carries the film through its lows. It is not only intensity that he brings to the role, but also a certain complexity. Andres is simply not just a stern or stubborn father or an ambitious criminal upstart, he is also a man torn between decades of accepted humility and an immediate future of being the boss. Torre inhabits Andres acknowledging that the transformation of the character is best revealed through subtle changes in gestures and behavior. Pimentel similarly inhabits the role of Andres’ wife with such surprising grace that only adds further layers to a role that could have been slight if portrayed by a less sensible actress.
Kabisera may be an imperfect film but it succeeds in dissecting the transformation of a fisherman who barters his soul with the devil for the sake not of his family but of his role in his family. Torre’s film, although deliberately bound by genre conventions, is delightfully complex. Laced with details, from the performances to Torre’s own directorial choices, the effects of its disturbing portraiture of Filipino patriarchy linger longer than the initial pleasures it immediately produces.
(Cross-published in Twitch.)