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By Noel Vera

Movie Review
Ma’ Rosa
By Brillante Mendoza

BRILLANTE MENDOZA’s latest feature Ma’ Rosa executes the immersive handheld camera style of filmmaking as well as could be done despite the small production budget of a little over P15 million (roughly $300,000).

We see Jaclyn Jose’s eponymous character right off, buying bulk supplies from a supermarket and fussing about the lack of proper change at the cashier (a suspiciously common problem — you wonder if sometimes the cashier doesn’t see the extra cash as some kind of tip). The supplies are for her corner convenience store which sells everything from cigarettes to little lollipops to (as a sideline) a packet of meth inserted in your cigarette pack if you have the cash, and know the proper password.

Mendoza’s deadpan introduction of his main characters has the effect of presenting an ambivalent case for us to judge: is Rosa a struggling entrepreneur or small-time drug dealer? A corrupting influence on her children or force for family unity? Our feelings for her are complicated still further when she and her husband Nestor (Julio Diaz) are scooped up in a police raid (shot in long take, with camera following behind the cops as they run down narrow alleyways into Rosa’s cramped little shack).

The police are an altogether different proposition: they’re imperiously languid, not unlike a pride of lions lounging around a watering hole — top predators on the food chain and know it too. They offer a deal: pay P200,000 (nearly $4,000) and the couple can walk free (the cops call this “bail money”). That, or surrender their supplier Jomar (Kristoffer King) so he can pay up.

The more negative critics decry Mendoza for going to the neorealist well once too often but what most of them seem to miss is just how darkly funny this all plays out. The cops are like lords and barons straight out of a George R.R. Martin epic, demanding their entitled share of food, money, drugs, depending on the common serf as a source of both sustenance and amusement — a far cry from the American police of my experience, who act more like stale bureaucrats and insufferable public servants than anything so freewheeling (if they’re interested in a suspect’s connections it’s to add to their case, not their wallets). The police in American TV and movies on the other hand are a whole different can of worms, often incarnated as the iconoclastic cowboy who tosses out the rulebook and goes after suspects Dirty Harry style — and then you realize where the Filipino equivalent find their inspiration, how the scenes at the precinct have the horrible look and feel of a badly staged and directed Hollywood action flick.

The suspects on the other hand are more like cornered rats — they cower before their captors, fawning, wheedling, pleading to win some concession or favor, even to the point of turning in a neighbor or friend to sweeten the deal. If the police are preening rockstar standup comedians the suspects are pratfalling circus clowns, sent in between numbers to keep the audience laughing while the divas prepare for a performance.

Rosa’s children are basically straight men, stony faced acolytes sent out to raise funds for their parents’ freedom. Their subdued demeanor seems poignant, especially Raquel (Andi Eigenmann, Jose’s real-life daughter) — in the face of their parents’ irresponsibility, especially regarding drug dealing, the children are forced to a maturity far beyond their years, and not for the first time. In these youths’ faces you see the weary resignation of kids who have long recognized the need to pick up after themselves, and often after their parents too.

Jose in my book has always been excellent. In Chito Roño’s debut feature Private Show she turned the tired cliché of the provincial lass corrupted by the big city into a breakout performance, sensitive yet unsentimental in accordance with the film’s neorealist style. In William Pascual’s Takaw Tukso she played the cliché of the martyr wife with conviction, eventually cuing us in on the fact that said wife is actually smarter than she lets on to be. By the time of this film, Jose has matured into mother roles and presents the cliché of the quietly forceful family matriarch with deceptive effortlessness — you don’t see her acting, you just see her, a fictional character fully formed and realized and moving across the screen. Diaz — a longtime friend and colleague of Jose — makes for an excellent foil as Rosa’s lackadaisical husband; he really only comes to life when he’s wheeling and dealing with the cops, otherwise he’d just rather sit back and let matters take their natural course, usually in a downward spiral.

Mendoza has been an avid supporter of President Duterte, a believer in Duterte’s brutal war on drugs; paradoxically his film (which was released about the same time) has gained relevance in the wake of this protracted war of some 14 months — some 15 if you count from the date of the elections, when the killings started even before he took office (the president had promised victory in six, tops). Low-level drug dealers are granted more humanity and compassion in this film than they’ve ever been during the actual war, and the corrupt system of “palit-ulo” (“head swapping,” the film’s original title) — of holding a suspect or his wife or his relative hostage till ransom is paid (or someone else higher up is caught) — seems relatively benign compared to the present system of extrajudicial killings. In effect, Mendoza’s earlier work intentionally or not seems like a subtly rendered rebuke against the regime of murder we are seeing today.

Ma’Rosa can now be found online at Youtube and Tumblr.