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SUPREME REVIEW:‘Ma Rosa’ and cinema at the margins

Francis Joseph A. Cruz (The Philippine Star) - July 16, 2016 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - It was Monday morning and I was idly browsing through my Instagram feed when I saw a screencap of a cellphone message from Cannes-feted director Brillante Mendoza. It’s essentially a thank you note to everybody who’s supported the commercial screening of his latest work, Ma’ Rosa. What differentiates it is that for all the laurels and honors his film has garnered for the Philippines, the tone of the message is hardly celebratory. It is somber — desperate, even. It is more a plea to keep his film from being pulled out of the cinemas because nobody was watching it.

There is an irony somewhere in that sad situation.

Ma’ Rosa, like most of Mendoza’s works, depicts another morose representative of the Philippines’ many marginalized citizens. Rosa, played daringly by Jaclyn Jose, is a slums-hardened mother who peddles drugs by way of her decrepit sari-sari store. She, along with her husband, gets caught by evil cops who insist on getting P50,000 for their freedom. They accept the deal, which forces their three children to go out into the world to raise whatever they can and however they can, just to rescue their parents from the harrowing grasp of institutionalized corruption.

As it turns out, the film, competing in theaters with empty spectacle-driven sequel Alice Through the Looking Glass, depraved violence pornography The Purge: Election Year, and charming but thematically repetitive rom-com The Achy Breaky Hearts, is just like its titular mother who is at wit’s end trying to figure out how she can survive the night. Ma’ Rosa is struggling to survive, and sadly, admittedly losing in that struggle against extreme odds.

It simply can’t keep up because what it offers is blatantly against everything the mall spiritually exists for, which is the sheer illusion and fantasy of wealth. The film’s themes of stinking poverty and deprivation within the very heart of the city is in stark contrast to the expensive colognes, the glitzy dresses and the pseudo-Western fashion that everyone walking around the mall adopts to veil their pre-Facebook and Instagram identities.

It isn’t as if Mendoza waged a war not knowing the uphill battle he had to face. He has weapons. His film has not only the Cannes stamp of approval that presumably assures it of international quality; it also has the historic acting award of Jose, presented by no less than Hollywood legend Meryl Streep, to sweeten the deal. The film’s trailer announces this, to the point of making the film less about the horrid state of Philippine society and more about Jose’s lauded performance. Rave reviews were plenty, detailing not only the greatness of Jose’s turn as Rosa but also the film’s obvious importance. Those reviews were then shared in social media, with lovingly written quotes peppering both Twitter and Instagram.

Despite that, only a few watched, urging world-famous Mendoza, who has tirelessly worked to make films that aren’t just about romantic love and its many permutations, to reach out to his friends and followers to not only thank them but also to remind them that his most recent masterpiece is on its way to being kicked out of the cinemas.

The issue remains. Quality does not ensure commercial success. Heck, it doesn’t even ensure breaking even. The flowery words of critics are only consolations. They hold no water in a culture that is easily blinded by digitally crafted wonders and witty one-liners about happy hearts and heartbreaks. In such a lopsided war for ticket sales, a film has to play the game of commerce, be able to stomach the idea that it has to perhaps degrade itself to arouse some curiosity to provoke viewers into the cinemas.

This is what Star Cinema did for Lav Diaz’s Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis, a film of such ungodly length that not even the handsome mugs of John Lloyd Cruz and Piolo Pascual could make it seem shorter. In a theme park-like world of cinema being reduced to sensory experiences, Diaz’s Berlin-winning masterpiece was sold as a challenge, a dare to survive eight hours in the cinema with characters out of history and literature wallowing in monochrome suffering. The marketing ploy worked. Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis was watched, and those who watched it for the sake of declaring to the world how they survived the challenge hopefully got something out of being lured into the dark.

In the Philippines, where there is no concept of cinema for a specific market, films like the ones made by Mendoza and Diaz have to slug it out with escapist fare. Everything is against their favor, because the Philippines is also a country where the malls have replaced parks and museums, and quite frankly, nobody goes to the mall to pay money to witness plights, smell the sewage, and to shoulder a humongous dose of societal guilt. It’s more fun in the Philippines, and anything that isn’t all about fun is relegated to the margins, right beside teary-eyed Rosa and her stick of fishballs.

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Tweet the author @oggsmoggs.

 

 

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