Why ‘Ma Rosa’ is a film Duterte would love
Scott R. Garceau (The Philippine Star) - July 10, 2016 - 12:00am

Brillante Mendoza’s Ma’ Rosa is a film President Rodrigo Duterte might love, but possibly for all the wrong reasons. He might see it as an unequivocal vindication of his war on drugs, a war that possibly begins with mutilated bodies marked with cardboard signs lying in streets, but could escalate to Colombia’s decades-long struggle between big drug fish and bigger drug fish, with small fish typically left belly-up and billions spent.

He could see it as a simple parable about the evils of drugs and corruption (the two are inextricably linked in Ma’ Rosa), and if he were the movie director instead of Mendoza, it might end up awash in a sea of dead drug dealers, big and small and in between.

A happy ending? No such thing in a Mendoza movie, and this one, which bagged a Best Actress trophy for Jaclyn Jose at the Cannes Film Festival, is no exception.

Ma’ Rosa takes us straight into the squalor and day-to-day struggles of Metro Manila’s hardscrabble millions: it opens in rainy season, as it often does in Mendoza films, for extra misery. Rosa (who owns a sari-sari shop bearing the movie’s title that doubles as a shabu dispensary) is haggling with a local cashier over 25 centavos in change. She’s buying tons of candy to fill her store’s plastic jars, but the real merchandise is sold through text messages and plaintive cries of “Ice?” from shadowy figures in the streets. Rosa has a reputation, we see.

Jose fits the role to a T, with her sharp tongue and nonstop complaints against her “lazy” children (among them Andi Eigenmann as Raquel, Jomari Angeles as Kerwin and Felix Roco as Jackson) and “a**hole” husband Nestor (Julio Diaz), who is sampling the merchandise with a pipe and lighter upstairs when she returns home from candy shopping, drenched in rain.

This whole sequence is played out by Mendoza almost in a continuous shot tracking Rosa’s shanty neighborhood (actually parts of Mandaluyong), so we get to see all the back alleys and balut vendors and Rugby-huffing youths and karaoke-singing loafers in familiar detail. This is our Manila, for sure. And it won’t be found on a DOT billboard.

Mendoza seems to pick the hardest locales to shoot in, such as the river squatter village of Lola (another misery fest), the red light district of Kinatay or the smeary vistas of tight alleyways shown in Ma’ Rosa. They’re hard locations because they document hard living. Yet all the tiniest details of such living — the One Piso Internet dens and the convenience store phone loading and the pawnshops captured in Troy Espiritu’s lively script — are rendered in a way that makes them universal: it’s the rare Filipino film that lets the world in on all the little inside jokes, and makes the misery burst through full-force in performances by Jose, Eigenmann, Roco, Diaz (and, really, everyone in the cast) that connect with all the nuances required to get by in this world.

When Rosa and Nestor are busted in a night raid, it’s up to them to negotiate their own release — trading off their confiscated drug stash and hoarded cash and next-in-line dealer to raise “bail money.” The arresting cops operate out of the back entrance of the local police station (Mendoza’s other great locale in Ma’ Rosa), and the camera painstakingly details how those invited in for “questioning” to this special PNP zone are not officially logged in.

Mendoza and Espiritu cook up a police station here that anyone who’s had the pleasure of visiting a local precinct house at night will recognize: a few plastic buckets catch rain dripping down from a leaky roof, jail cells are crowded with bodies that are as much usiseros — amusing themselves in lockup by watching the passing night parade — as overnight guests; a young boy, Dahlia (great name), wears a “Little Miss Trouble” T-shirt and fetches balut, beer, peanuts and other things for the night cops who rule this rat’s nest.

Yet they’re all depicted with so many shades of dark and light that you can’t simply label them all as corrupt and evil. As tempting as it might be for a Duterte supporter to see Ma’ Rosa as justification to burn down the whole rat’s nest, the problem, in Mendoza’s vision, is more complex than simple bullets. The director’s clear, unblinking eye on the situation disallows easy moralizing. You’re forced to look at the chain of being that supports this way of life, and how it quickly turns into shackles.

Mendoza clearly wanted to shine a light on the horrors of low-level drug dealing in the Philippines — how the little fish catch the brunt of every crackdown — but Jose gives such a naturalistic performance as a harried mother figure who takes little sh*t from anybody (until she’s forced to) that you realize her struggle amounts to anybody else’s struggle in this environment. They are all trading up something, whether it’s a used TV or a used cell phone or a drug dealer’s name or their own pound of flesh. 

And they are all, typically, under the thumb of a higher power — whether it’s a local cop or a trick with an ATM card or a corrupt system or the need to keep earning enough to eat. This is one movie that doesn’t focus on the evils of drugs so much as the basic economics of it: the way it lures smalltime dealers to augment their meager incomes, whereas, in a more ideal world (the one hinted at in the closing shot), they might have chosen differently.

Ma’ Rosa is also loaded with ironies, such as how the relationship to a higher power can flip in an instant — as in, a single cell phone call. Teresa Barrozo’s score meanwhile echoes horror movie music, but adds legitimately to the tension and sense of dislocation Rosa feels every step of the way. (The claustrophobic handheld camerawork helps too.)

More brilliantly, Mendoza once again paints a view of the local landscape that some would prefer not to broadcast to the world too much. Seedy, full of compromises and exchanges that equal one thing only: the chance to survive another day. That’s a pretty hard economics lesson.

In a role where she definitely earns that Cannes trophy, Jose takes her mestiza looks (her real-life daughter Eigenmann is even more mestiza) and shows us anybody’s tough mom in tough circumstances. But this is in no way sentimentalized: she’s made her own bad choices, and it’s the final scene — after she’s traded up her daughter’s cell phone for enough cash to release her husband, and plods back through rain to the precinct station, first stopping to purchase fish balls from a street vendor — where we see the whole situation in its palpable desperation: as palpable as the sweat popping off Jose’s forehead as she eats fish ball after fish ball in quick swipes from the stick, her feverish eyes darting about at the world she herself has created, and dreaming of another, far-off, seemingly impossible one.

Mendoza’s movies get labeled “poverty porn” by some, but this is something quite different: poverty poetry.

* * *

Ma’ Rosa is now showing in local cinemas (with English subtitles).

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