Brillante Mendoza's Ma' Rosa brings the squalor of Metro Manila’s streets to the big screen and out for all the world to see.
His latest entry to the 2016 Cannes Film Festival is a socio-political drama that explores drugs, poverty and corruption.
It is a metropolis that is crowded—overly so—with people and vehicles. There is hardly any sign of the big buildings or posh commercial centers. This is the mega city where most of the 10 million (or so) live: the alleyways that get narrower and narrower that it makes you claustrophobic; the pockmarked streets where you could step in anything any time; the too-close-together shanties that pass for homes if only because you can’t spit and not hit someone you’re related to.
The film begins by showing Rosa (played by Jaclyn Jose) and her son Erwin (Jomari Angeles) buying groceries for their sari-sari store.
There is a storm approaching and this foreshadows the conflicts that will soon befall their family. As they walk home in the rain, you can almost feel the suffocating humidity, smell the pungency that hovers in air, the combination of alcohol and burnt meat wafting from different directions, the heat and sweat just because of the proximity of so many people—and the layers of noise: women and men talking (even shouting) at each other above the loud sounds emanating from the videoke machine, that ubiquitous contraption that serves to satiate the masses.
Rosa has four children: Erwin (Jomari), Jackson (Felix Roco), Raquel (Andi Eigenmann), and Jillian (Inna Tuason). They live in a tiny two-storey house with a sari-sari store in the front.
The twist comes when Rosa’s husband, Nestor (played by the almost too natural Julio Diaz), is revealed: he is doing illegal drugs in the second floor of their house, with only a shabby curtain to hide behind.
It is plainly clear that they are drug dealers and the store is a front for their operations. Things happen very fast as a group of plainclothes policemen target their operation and close in on the couple. They are taken to the station in the dead of night and made to rat on their supplier in exchange for freedom (known in street parlance as "pugot ulo").
However, the policemen are corrupt (surprise, surprise!) and they want money. Mark Anthony Fernandez, Mon Confiado, Neil Ryan Sese and Baron Geisler carry on with their rotten plans while ironically being surrounded by the police logo emblazoned with the words "Service," "Honor" and "Justice."
Jaclyn's eyes communicate layers of meaning in the scene when they are in the police vehicle being transported to the police station. It is a combination of desperation and confusion. She is like a deer caught in the headlights; a lamb being led to slaughter. But she makes no sound and hardly moves. Only the ambient sound of the scene around her is a stark contrast to her presence. They pass by a small family whose members, including the child, are engaged in manual labor in the middle of the night, struggling to make a buck.
A similar scene plays out toward the end, also “between” Jaclyn and another small, hardworking family unit selling goods in a store just like hers (without the illegal drugs).
Through their own ways, the children struggle to raise the P50,000 needed to regain the freedom of their parents.
Nowhere in the entire film does anyone say the words “I am doing it for the sake of my family.” But this theme is present throughout the entire film. It is the motivation of the characters. It is, in some ways, the only thing that keeps them alive.
There is some comparison that can be drawn with Lino Brocka’s masterpiece Insiang, which incidentally was also screened in Cannes in 1976 and once again, in 2015. It has been about 40 years but the problems of poverty still persist, as seen in Ma' Rosa as it was in Insiang.
Felix Roco and Andi Eigenmann showcase their acting pedigree. Stripped down, they almost blend with the milieu. They communicate with and without words, showing a clear understanding of the nuances of the craft.
Jomari will jolt viewers through his character's daring way of earning money.
Maria Isabel Lopez, tagged as the "kabogera" on the Cannes red carpet, also proved to be a "kabogera" onscreen as she delivered rapid-fire insults for the incarcerated Jaclyn.
Though it is supposed to be—and could very well be—captured reality, in some parts, the camera tends to switch from in focus to out of focus too rapidly, or pan to quickly that audiences may get a headache if they concentrate too much.
Special mention must be made of Albert Michael Idioma’s exemplary sound design and engineering. He resisted the urge—and conventional use of loud music—in every scene. Instead, his careful scoring accompanied the characters and hinted at their emotional states. They were not intrusive either.
Does Jaclyn Jose deserve the Cannes Best Actress Award based on her performance in this film? Absolutely. Her heart-wrenching closeup at the very end is so pregnant with meaning—without any words said. And in such an audio-visual medium as film, that is important.
Direk Brillante has put together the right people to play their parts and let the story (inspired by real incidents) be told in this film.
Ma' Rosa was one of the 21 films that competed for the prestigious Palme d'Or prize at the 69th Cannes Film Festival in France.
It will be screened in Philippine cinemas starting July 6, 2016.
Ed's Note: The "PEP Review" section carries the views of individual reviewers, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the PEP editorial team.