When her former husband, Hesus, dies, Iyay (Jaclyn Jose) assembles her children Jude (Chai Fonacier), Jay (Melde Montanez), and Bert (Paul Vincent Viado) for a trip to their previous home in Dumaguete. The misadventures of the family on their way from Cebu follows, with every conflict of each character unfolding as the trip goes by in classic road movie fashion.
Early in the film, we see each of the characters introduced in such a way that it gives a hint of what troubles them individually. In the first sequence, Iyay is chopping fried pork cutlets mindlessly before it is revealed that her former husband has died. Jay is introduced in a scene where he plays basketball but is unable to make a shot, parallel his difficulty on passing the board exams. Jude is first seen walking along a sandy road near a construction site, followed by a cut to another scene of her walking on a sandy road: the bland landscape seems to set the kind of relationship he has with other characters, especially with his partner. The film is most careful when introducing Bert. The actor, Paul Vincent Viado, is visually notable due to his down’s syndrome. Instead of highlighting his predicament, Bert is instead introduced through his interest: the first scene he’s on in the film is a sequence where he was talking to their neighbors about how to dance.
Different characters have different intensities to them. In a way, director Victor Villanueva finds a way to make do with these intensities not by providing balance from another character, but by carefully weighing on scenes that highlight each character. The distribution of sequences between characters may not be balanced, but it works in the overall design of the film, both as a road movie and a comedy.
This is not to say that Jesus is Dead is another typical Filipino comedy, although it uses common tropes successfully and effectively. From hyperbolic dialogue to the wild production design, to total randomness, and ensuing misunderstandings, the referential jokes are familiar from local pop culture, which makes the film accessible even to the country’s non-Cebuano speakers.
What is most notable in the film is its conscious avoidance of melodrama. In a scene when Jay confides in Iyay about what is bothering him, Iyay just shrugs off her feelings of disappointment and, instead, mocks what should have been her reaction, as if she actually prefers to escalate the situation. This film’s consciousness of the tropes it’s trying to avoid reflects the mood of each character. In a way, we get the feeling of tiredness from most of them: Jay being tired of his own perceived uselessness, Jude being tired of his failed relationship, and Iyay being tired of her children’s troubles. This tiredness translated the film into its own consciousness. The avoidance of melodrama in Jesus is Dead is not merely a gimmick for comedy but actually an attempt to relay this feeling of tiredness.
Of course, this feeling is two-fold. It can also be said that what is depicted as tiredness of melodrama is the film’s own way of criticising popular comedic tropes in mainstream Filipino comedies where the melodramatic parts are considered more part than the comedic parts. This is a tradition, which can be traced from the films starring Vic Sotto to Dolphy, where the stories peak with the sermons from the patriarch of families before it reaching their dénouement. In a way, by doing so, the film also reflects on the idea of comedy in Filipino cinema.
What would not have worked in most Filipino comedies finds its way of working in Jesus is Dead by not trying to balance-out the characters, but rather by working on its own imbalances. It’s a film, which, by design, has a conscious of its own and an awareness of its genre’s history of excesses.
Jesus is Dead is showing on November 11 at the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival.