Betting on a Winner By Sheila Johnston

in 28th Moscow International Film Festival

by Sheila Johnston

The FIPRESCI jury in Moscow wasted little time in voting unanimously for the Filippino film The Bet Collector (Kubrador). True, its director, Jeffrey Jeturian, is not a new talent – this is his seventh feature – nor, at 47, a young one. But The Bet Collector has urgency, freshness and hidden depths; to paraphrase the poet Walt Whitman, it may not be a large film, but it contains multitudes within its rough-edged simplicity. It’s also a most welcome sign of life from the Filippino cinema, from which not much has been heard on the international scene since the death of Lino Brocka fifteen years ago. In short, despite the dearth of other strong candidates for the prize, a very deserving winner.

Amelita and her lazy, telly-addict husband barely subsist on their income from a small convenience store, which she supplements by collecting bets for an illegal gambling racket – in a New York crime movie, she’d be known as a “numbers runner”. Cajoling and bullying clients into placing bets they can ill-afford, Amelita (forcefully played by Gina Pareno) is an ambiguous figure, both curiously vulnerable and one of those powerful matriarchs whose sheer force of will holds her struggling family together.

Superficially, The Bet Collector looks as though it could have been made by the Dardennes Brothers. Like their films, it is concerned with society’s have-nots; as in their work, the nervy, hand held camera pursues the main character, emphasising her driven, desperate quality as she ploughs doggedly about her daily business through the crowded city streets. But, unlike the Dardennes, who home in on one or two individuals with minute intimacy, this story fans out from its protagonist to capture a whole teeming world. There is a broad cast of characters here, and not all the performances are top-class (in one too-long scene, a bereft grandfather turns his grief into ham). The street scenes, filmed apparently on location, are fluidly staged and somehow Jeturian mostly avoids having passers-by peering into the camera.

Though in outline the film sounds miserabilist, it moves along swiftly with a good deal of energy and humour. Building on unemphatic but revealing moments – for instance when Amelita’s friend cadges a cigarette and a light, then tries to pocket the lighter – it avoids the temptation to sink into melodrama. In one scene, the bet collectors are arrested, but it’s apparently all in a day’s work and the police chief avails himself of the opportunity to place a secret wager of his own. In another, Amelita’s feckless husband has forgotten to pass on a bet, which turns out to be the winning one. Somehow, the family will have to find the prize money themselves, but again one has the sense that they will cope and life will continue.

The film takes place over the three days leading up to the Feast of All Saints on 1 November when, in the Philippines, people traditionally descend en masse upon cemeteries to tend the graves of deceased relatives. The date is of great significance to Amelita, whose son, a soldier who died under unspecified circumstances, appears to her periodically in visions, almost as a guardian angel. This touch of the supernatural borders on sentimentality, but the scenes are elegantly downplayed in a way that resists that.

The Bet Collector nails that mix of fatalism and religious fervour which people suffering conditions of extreme poverty use to cope with their lives. Devoutly Catholic, the superstitious Amelita sees signs and portents everywhere (in one well-staged sequence, she gets lost in the city’s labyrinth of narrow alleyways, and believes she is placed under a curse). Her clients, too, bet on numbers which for them have the prophetic value of tarot cards; on a broader level, the lottery is a metaphor for the laws of chance ruling a society where human life – as is seen in several scenes – is cheap. Ultimately, in the lottery as in life, the rules are rigged.