A PORTRAIT of a homeless family, a couple with a child, scraping glass bottles to sell to the junkshop—at a distance is Rosa (Jaclyn Jose), watching them from the police jeep. Slightly soaked from sweat combined with rainwater, she is handcuffed with her husband by her side. It is visible on her face the subtle yet emotionally-shattering note that her family’s life beholds a different fate if not for one thing.
The Filipino auteur Brillante Mendoza makes his return to the Cannes competition with Ma’Rosa. The film has a clipped pace and a violently truthful narration of the condition of a small-time drug dealer from a shady street in the sprawling city of Mandaluyong under the corrupt surveillance of policemen. Mendoza understands the core of being a Filipino living in the slums of Manila, examining the conditions that allow his poverty to subsist.
Rosa, a petite, rowdy woman and mother to four children, runs a sari-sari store in a dark neighborhood with her husband, Nestor (Julio Diaz). Set in the Manila squalor, Mendoza shines a light into the dark corners of otherwise unreported lives. Unfortunately, Rosa’s little shop is not enough to sustain her family, so to make ends meet, the couple illegally sells ice (a form of crystal meth) in small plastic bags. On the eve of her husband’s birthday, the police raid their little store and arrest them both. Police officers threaten to lock them in prison without bail unless they hand over 200,000 pesos, or turn over their supplier Jomar (Kristoffer King) so they can cough him up with the same amount. Ma’Rosa skillfully reveals policemen as ruthless thieves after they have peeled down their genial masks.
The film takes an intriguing turn when their three teenage children start raising money to bail out their parents. Kerwin (Jomari Angeles), Jackson (Felix Roco) and Raquel (Andi Eigenmann) are forced to ride the whirling city of Manila, soliciting money from neighbors, relatives, and “trade partners.” While Raquel begs other family members for donations, Jackson searches for buyers of their TV, and the seemingly reserved Kerwin finds himself sleeping with an older man in exchange for money.
Growing up within this corrupt milieu, they are pinned down by familial obligations forcing them to mature despite their age. In present time, young adults are compelled to adapt according to their situation in which they are hardened by poverty, groomed in a dark, bleak, and cold environment.
The film does not stray far from the rest of Mendoza’s filmography. Though not as cinematic as his first competition entry in Cannes, “Serbis,” Mendoza’s regular cinematographer Odyssey Flores captures the appropriately dark and grimy industrial city of Manila, almost making the setting a character of its own. He projects the film in natural lighting with shaky and almost documentary-like camerawork. Shooting in the middle of the typhoon season, Mendoza proves how uncompromising he can get.
Ma’Rosa works more in devotion to the matriarch figure. The Best Actress awardee in this year’s Cannes Festival stuns with her breathtaking acting—she imbues seemingly ordinary scenes with uncommonly deep and passionate underlying emotion through her eyes; she chews her food with all the strength her jaw could muster, against the stares of some people who were powerless against her.
Even during the heaviest moments of the film the figure is still palpable, reminding its audience the unbending role of a mother in the Filipino family—that reality is clothed in darkness and it is the mother who sheds light into a home. With Rosa’s grit and unsparing tenacity, this film reveals both the best and the worst of humanity; it is sympathetic to both. Ultimately what stands out is not the clean image of virtue, but the clear beauty of sacrifice. F ANDREA JAMAICA H. JACINTO