Home that is Prison

28 Jun

Tessa Maria Guazon

Embattled domesticity

The films Niño and Bisperas speak of troubled domesticity and map this state within the spatial materiality of home. In them, we witness the crumbling structure of the social unit that is the modern family. The former enacts one entrapped by longing for an illustrious past and the latter depicts another whose ties are threatened by lies.

Tense silence reigns in the home-worlds of Bisperas and Niño as characters tether in the limbo of longing. In Bisperas it is an avowed hope for a renewed future where mistakes are redeemed, while it is nostalgia for a life of refinement and excess in Niño. The families housed in these worlds confront the onslaught of time and decay that is its companion.

Home speaks. By turns witness and burden, home is refuge that is not always all-embracing. Its welcome is deceptive because at times, it can be bosom that chokes.  In ways not often obvious, this best describes our fraught relations with family and the uncertain ties constantly negotiated within the home.

The house is not only space where narrative unfolds; it is itself a central character in moving these film narratives forward. In Niño, a crumbling ancestral home is silent witness to its inhabitants’ recollections, their scrambling for scraps left over from a way of life long gone. The modest, subdivision bungalow of Bisperas suffers a looting and its bowels upturned, the house reveals secrets long harboured, mutely accepted but dangerously transformed once spoken of.

Relations characterized by material space are embodiments of these filial ties, those that free and incarcerate. This is the space the essay plots and maps. This review posits the houses of Bisperas and Niño as “rhetorical space”. In Roxanne Mountford’s terms this space is the “the geography of (a) communicative event”, which when considered in film is made more complex by the multiple layers of space cinema is able to construct.[1] This space includes arrangements that may be “material and cultural, whether intended or fortuitous”.[2] Historical by nature, rhetorical spaces represent in physical form relationships and ideas.[3] These understandings of space are complicated by the character of film. The houses as mise-en-scene exist materially but narrative endows them with another form of rhetoric.

This rhetorical space extends beyond the limits of the film frame as the narratives find and construct resonant ideas among audiences. Film endows rhetorical space with multiple meanings and transforms it into a highly charged location of utterance. Thus, geography construed within film language is best mapped within the frames constructed by narrative and cinematic device as well as larger social landscapes where these spaces belong.

Nostalgia and deceit

We meet the Aguinaldo family in a Christmas Eve procession, the panunuluyan that commemorates Mary and Joseph’s search for an inn to stay. The family is depicted against this backdrop, a community of more or less known neighbours whose fickle relations with each other are played out on the street. Salud the wife dotes on her granddaughter Steph who for the first time spends the holidays in Manila. Ara the middle child takes family photos but ends limping on blistered foot. Mio, closet gay and youngest of the brood, slips away to meet his lover, while Diane the eldest child seems oblivious to all else except her daughter. The latter works as a nurse in the US and is home for the Christmas holidays. The procession ends in church where they join Ramon head of the family, a lay minister.

They drive through the city which is a place both old and new to Diane’s eyes. Ensconced in the comfort of their sedan, the family seems no less ordinary. Shrouded by a sheer, almost meditative quiet, their thoughts during the ride home are aired and spoken for by the blast of an evening radio talk program.

All look forward to their Christmas Eve dinner (the Noche Buena) but find a home strangely unlighted. Gate ajar and door locks pried loose, they soon discover their house looted. We are again acquainted with the family in this anxious manner. As they giddily scan their rooms and discover what is lost, petty fights erupt and hurtful blame ensues.

In their accounting of possessions thieved, cargo boxes, passports, computer, cameras, jewellery, clothes gone we are cleverly led to that most valued and threatened lost by this family – trust. Salud finds the land titles gone. This discovery causes a ripple of anxiety amongst the women of the family. Ramon seems unflustered by it. Ara confronts him in quiet rage, asking whether he had pawned the titles yet again. He retorts with indignation, bristling at the way his children regard him with distrust.

Noche Buena turns nasty as they embark on a heated exchange that threatens to bring back old ghosts, especially Ramon’s gambling streak. We discover Diane bravely putting up a front, hiding at best the fact that she singly supports a growing daughter and a jobless husband. Salud loses her steely control in this broiling spat.

Enflamed she waves a carving knife before them and declares the US trip meant as Diane‘s birthday gift an impossibility because indeed “there is no money and passports are lost!”. Struggling to keep the veneer of this ideal family together, Salud regains composure and tidies up the house altar, the family portraits, and the lighted Christmas tree.

They attend Christmas sermon next day seemingly having forgotten the tribulations of the night before. The Aguinaldos carry on as they were. We expect the film to end on this tawdry note but Mio spots a man wearing his Ateneo University jacket. Thinking him to be one of the thieves, Mio tries to catch him but loses him in the crowd streaming out of church. There are more secrets to unfold within their lives but Salud once again reigns over them with maddening resolve and stoic tolerance.

The family home bears this defeat – defective plumbing, a flickering patio light, a well worn kitchen. Diane screeches in alarm when she finds the ground floor toilet overflowing with faeces (from the thieves no less) and the flush not working. Ara is rankled when her father and Mio insist turning the faulty patio light on. Like a warning sign the defective bulb is symptom of the ruin that threatens this middle class family. This ruin is a mute, roiling emptiness that engulfs a home whose hearth is fed by silent, crackling resentment.

The kitchen like Salud is beaten, worn by the countless meals needed to nourish family and guests. Indeed, the kitchen is where Salud regains her composure after learning the rental money she had entrusted Mio is also stolen. This is the same place where she gathers courage to speak defiantly and here, we discover who guards the family against collapse. Like the house, Salud is pious sentinel and quiet presence. Yet like her a faded beauty aged by life’s pains, the house struggles against the burden of secrets and decay.

Rout is sealed for the once-powerful Lopez-Aranda family as they eke out a living inside the crumbling confines of the Villa Los Reyes Magos. The family had to resort to letting spare rooms to student boarders. This, Merced’s job and Celia’s occasional voice lessons help the family thrive. The house’s serpentine columns, wood plank- and Spanish-tiled floors attest to its faded grandeur. Majority of the scenes are shot in the dining area and adjoining balcony that stretches through the perimeter of the house.

Once the star of the Philippine opera Celia now sings her arias to her fatally ill brother, Gaspar, once Congressman whose bets in local politics had lost when Marcos ran for presidency. His recollections run the gamut of boxing, politics, and parties until overcome with the forgetfulness induced by drugs. Celia wades through this villa of lost hopes reliving alongside her brother the grand balls the family once hosted. She hankers over choices made in the past and dreams of fixing the garden and the house gate.

Merced, Celia’s daughter tries her best to hold the family together and assiduously works on their toe line finances. She lives with a lover, a female nursing student whom she introduces as the boarder and for whom she provides. All is disrupted when brother Mombic arrives. He is to leave for a job in Dubai and forcibly thrusts the care of his son Antony to both Merced and Celia. All these are unspoken of and propriety demands that they remain heavily guarded secrets, however.

Antony explores the house in play, with curiosity second-nature to a child. On his first dinner, illustrious people who once dined at the same table were mentioned in succession. He acquaints himself with the house’s occupants by smell – Banang the loyal maid who smells of kitchen fumes, his grandmother of roses, both Aunt Merced and her lover musty like closets. He slips into rooms, witnessing evening ministrations and rituals. He peers through antiquated china cabinets, looks over balconies, and runs through the garden. He is fascinated with altars and the figure of the child Jesus who saved his father from an early death due to meningitis. Believing the Santo Niño (the Child Jesus) will bring about a second miracle Celia dresses him up like the saint figure, all to Mombic’s distress.

The family stands to lose the villa, as Celia had long given up her rights to the house. They fear Gaspar’s imminent death as well as the decision of his daughter Raquel to sell the house. Yet like the doomed fate of this once-illustrious family, the house is destined lost to them. Raquel arrives from the US and ushers a string of connivances and intrigues. Old wounds and secrets threaten to be let loose. We discover Mombic and Raquel drawn together by incestuous attraction as when they were in their youth. Yet all these are trumped by Reinhardt’s (Raquel’s son from her third husband) admission of his sexuality.

In the end, everybody prepares for an inevitable leaving – Gaspar to life beyond, Celia, Merced and grandson Antony to a modest condominium unit, Mombic to a far-off place, Raquel to the US. Her son leaves the fray of the family and seeks his destiny in Manila. To the rest, destiny becomes either severed or tied to the concept of home. Raquel has no attachment to one hardened as she is by life in the States. Mombic only knows perpetual striving after a string of failures and Celia more attached than anybody else to family history which she sees entwined with the house. Merced remains the family’s stolid ground because it is only she who accepts this eventuality with sacrifice and resolve.

The house’s elegant furniture is overcome by the emptiness that pervades Villa los Reyes Magos. The utter gloom of its interiors and its overgrown garden are images of neglect. In the tertulia Celia organizes in the end, the balcony, a space both inside and beyond, takes her back to the past. Here she sings a moving aria, a lament to faded youth and glory. As when the film had begun, she grieves for the past and yearns for refuge, “comfort to a weary soul”.

The balcony is warmed by clear light and here she breathes the fresh garden air. Antony incredulously dressed as the child Jesus runs after a white butterfly in the garden, which like the house has long presaged the fall of the family. A miracle after all is long due coming.

Uncertain Peace (and uneasy endings)

The home in Bisperas, house No. 9 along a main avenue just beyond Liwayway Street in Quezon City holds the narrative faultlessly together. Jeturian provides the locus of the narrative wholly. By starting with the procession inside the subdivision, he lets us into the world where the story of the Aguinaldos unfolds. He maps their strained relationships within a communal setting and shows how much of these tensions are kept from the public eye.

Jeturian succeeds to show that indeed the home, the self and the community collapse into each other. Yet because of the pervasive centrality of ideals of family, of “blood being thicker than water” we endure the stifling coagulations of family more often than wanted.

Loy Arcenas on the other hand depicts Villa Los Reyes Magos a world unto itself. We are given little clue as to its location. We glimpse an old Manila street during Raquel’s arrival but the scenes mostly unfold within the house interiors, much like the rooms that ring hollow of memories slipping swiftly by.

The house in Niño is grave and silent like the crypt that awaits Gaspar and old age where even memory can be wrested from Celia. Much of the home exists in the recollections of Celia and Gaspar and for the generation after, it is only pawn to secure a future. Despite its ornate presence, the villa is like a ghost, immaterial except to those whose opiate memories help it survive. In many ways, this personification of the house in Niño is both weakness and strength. We long to witness the house but it is only after much contemplation that we realize that its deliberate, material absence bespeaks the fate of the remaining generations of the Lopez-Arandas.

In both families, women suffer in quiet grace and in so many instances become one with the house. Stifled by home, they represent ambivalence when confronted with the question of their presence in a precipitously disintegrating family. It is disheartening for the films to end with a seeming resignation, a mute acceptance of circumstance.

The houses in both films bide forestalled time. Yet this temporality clashes with the underlying current of their narratives. In Bisperas the house is transfixed in time as its spaces are violated by thieves. The film characters however thrive within an urgency that demands time to move forward, to arrive at redemption perhaps. In Niño on the other hand, the house embodies a headlong fall into the void of decay and the family struggles to yoke time to a past to stop its course. These temporal tensions render these films interesting and thus, it is disappointing to have them punctured by endings made crude by their predictable nature. The narratives collapse with the expectant tone of their closing.

To my mind, films that attempt to flesh out issues closest to heart benefit from ambivalence most. Isn’t it that human relationships embody this fragile balance, often unpredictable? In struggles with fate’s invisible hand, it is the spirit in ordeals of persistence and survival that keens, trudges, and strains. An ending more enigmatic, more probing, less confining could have perhaps elevated the narratives of Bisperas and Niño to such understanding.


[1] Mountford, Roxanne. 2001: 42

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid


Bruno, Giuliana.The Architects of Time: Reel Duration from Warhol to Tsai Ming Liang” in Public Intimacy: Architecture and the Visual Arts. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007. 189-213.

Mountford, Roxanne. Winter 2001. “On Gender and Rhetorical Space” in Rhetoric Society Quarterly 31:1, 41-71.


Posted by on 28/06/2012 in Film Review


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2 responses to “Home that is Prison

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