REVIEW | Ma'Rosa (2016)

It is Brillante Mendoza’s strong suit—a social realist drama set in a squalid and congested area in Manila, his hand-held camera giving us an uncensored and intimate view of a depressing truth. And in Ma’Rosa, Mendoza focuses on police corruption, taking us to the backroom where the bribery takes place.

The titular character (Jaclyn Jose) is a hardened mother of four who owns a tiny convenience store in a poor urban neighborhood. In her cramped and impoverished world, every day is a regular cycle of debts, loans, minding her store, gambling—and peddling crystal meth on the side. Her husband Nestor (Julio Diaz) snorts ice in the upstairs of their dingy shack, and it’s a very much accepted lifestyle.

Rosa’s routine of survival is interrupted when one rainy night the police raids her home and arrests her and her stoned husband for illegal possession of prohibited drugs. And so we watch how the police conduct their illegal proceedings.

Ma’Rosa is not a thriller. There is no suspense, no action, and the drama is contained. It is a chamber piece with no antagonists because the main players are not blameless, including Rosa herself. It is simply a realistic depiction of a seedy, greedy, lawless world where there is no distinction between the police and the criminals, that at one point the film even metaphorically conveyed it when the authorities threw Nestor a police shirt to wear.

But Ma'Rosa is gripping and intense nonetheless. In fact, the lack of action and excitement takes us to a higher state of horror. Because what we are witnessing is the ordinariness of evil, how it is commonplace, indifferent, and totally normal. The corrupt policemen are not dangerous here; they do not inflict fear. They are simply greedy men, conducting their regular business of extortion. You can even feel their joy and relief when they hit a jackpot and are able to afford a case of beer and roasted chicken. They are deprived men, just like their victims. Seeking temporary comfort and luxury in an easy money-making scheme.

The horror here is in the trivial details; how the corrupt officers snack on street food, feast on a pricey dinner, relaxed in a back office where Rosa and Nestor are detained unharmed, without a hint of conscience. They have civilian assistants plucked from the streets—a gay urchin promoted to errand boy and an overenthusiastic balut vendor, like it’s all just a regular day in the workplace. The immorality is so accepted and deeply rooted that it is scary. And as Mark Anthony Fernandez is buttoning his police uniform like a costume, it is tragic. Justice has become an illusion.

Ma’Rosa feels deliciously authentic. The actors, even the extras, are more natural here compared to Mendoza's previous works; they are not camera- or script-conscious here, which makes the film all the more engrossing. Diaz effortlessly sways from stoned, to clueless, to hopeful, to worried, that he is the film’s understated comic relief (apart from the errand boy, Dahlia).

Jose deserves her Cannes Best Actress trophy as Rosa, exhibiting restrained stress,  quiet acceptance of a hard-knock life, strong and resilient. A mother, wife, and a small-time drug pusher juggling her criminal and household activities on a daily basis. If she has even the tiniest of guilt, she keeps it from you. Especially when she deploys her children to solicit “bail money.” Jose completely transforms into Rosa, and in her final scene, when her dam of emotions cracks, your heart goes to this raw, tortured soul.

Ma’Rosa, which earned a standing ovation at this year’s Cannes, is a triumph. Mendoza, with a screenplay from Troy Espiritu, skillfully and earnestly showcases—through a very appropriate, beautiful, and highly effective cinema verite style— a harrowing reality, with touches of dark comedy. The story is unapologetic, frank in its portrayal of societal ills, which makes it all the more haunting.

5 out of 5 stars
Opens July 6 in the following Philippine cinemas:


Glorietta 4
Power Plant Cinema

Fairview Terraces
Gateway Cineplex
Robinsons Galleria
SM Fairview
SM North Edsa

Market Market
SM Aura Premiere

Robinsons Place Manila

Robinsons Metro East

SM Megamall

SM Marikina

SM Southmall

SM Cebu

SM Iloilo

Gaisano Davao
NCCC Davao
SM Davao
SM Lanang Premiere


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