Film Review: Ma’ Rosa

'Ma' Rosa' Review - Brillante Mendoza

Back in competition at Cannes, Filipino director Brillante Mendoza ('Kinatay') tackles the subject of police corruption as it affects a small-time drug dealer.

After recreating the 2001 Dos Palmas kidnapping incident by Islamic separatists in “Captive” (2012), Filipo auteur Brillante Mendoza’s “Ma’ Rosa” is an equally political hostage drama in which small-time drug-sellers are detained by police extorting a payout. As an indictment of the ubiquity of the country’s corruption and the banality of evil, it’s neither as harrowing as his own “Kinatay” nor as stylish as compatriot Erik Matti’s noir crime thrillers. Still, as in most of the director’s repertoire, he portrays working class family relations with unpretentious warmth. Boasting a simple, coherent plot shot with real-time, handheld verismo, it’s a work of understated confidence that will not disappoint his festival acolytes, but probably won’t win many new converts.

Crafted with input from screenwriting guru Armando “Bing” Lao (who collaborated with Mendoza on “Serbis” and “Kinatay”), the structure of Troy Espiritu’s script harks back to the hyper-realism of “Slingshot,” the director’s last film to portray the sprawling urban slum of Metro Manila. A decade after that feature was made, his latest outing still adheres to Lao’s theories of setting a story in a unified location, within a time frame not exceeding a few days. Encompassing torrential rain in real locations that often look underexposed in natural light, with sporadically blurry cinematography, the deliberately grubby aesthetics appear more vintage than edgy, especially when a young generation of Filipino directors (many inspired by Mendoza) have branched out to a wider range of subjects, styles and locations.

When portraying poverty, Mendoza gets down to the nitty-gritty as the eponymous heroine Rosa Reyes (Jaclyn Jose) first appears counting every penny at the supermarket where she buys goods to resell at the sari-sari  store she runs in a Mandaluyong shantytown, east of Manila. Anything that would earn a few extra pesos would be readily embraced by the Reyes. Thus, peddling ice (a form of crystal meth) in small quantities is a way of supplementing their income, no different from renting out their beloved karaoke set to the neighbors to have a sing-along. Nor does Rosa raise an eyebrow at the casual drug-taking of husband Nestor (Julio Diaz). Haggling seems to be second nature to all the characters, and part and parcel of a life that must be fought ceaselessly to be preserved.

On the eve of Nestor’s birthday, the cops raid Rosa’s tiny convenience store, easily finding evidence to arrest the couple. As soon as they arrive at the station, they’re taken through a side entrance into a back room. Instead of following standard protocol, Officer Lopez (Baron Geisler) and his underlings threaten to jail Rosa and her husband unless they pay a private settlement of 200,000 pesos. Their prolonged negotiations are conducted in a businesslike way that makes the police’s bloodsucking greed all the more sickening. When the couple can’t pay up, they are asked to turn over their supplier, Jomar (Kristoffer King), so the police can bust — and extort — him as well.

Whereas “Kinatay” raised the police’s abuse of power to a nauseating level of on-screen violence, here it’s built up more skillfully, allowing their genial masks finally to peel away and reveal ruthless thuggery. However, while capturing the awkwardness of the Reyeses being tucked away in an adjoining room while Jomar is being blackmailed, Mendoza neither explores their moral turmoil nor imbues the situation with enough tension.

The film takes a more engaging turn when the Reyeses’ three children Jackson (Felix Roco), Erwin (Jomari Angeles) and Raquel (Andy Eigenmann) are tasked with raising the money to bail out their parents. That there’s been no outward show of affection among any of the family members makes their instant assumption of duty surprisingly touching. While Jackson and Erwin look like mama’s boys at first, they prove more enterprising and resourceful than expected, lifting the mood out of total bleakness.

TV veteran Jose, reunited with Diaz after “Slingshot,”embodies the careworn yet resilient matriarch with naturalistic grace, but she exudes less charisma than Mendoza’s other female leads, notably Nora Aunor (“Taklub”), Maria Isabel Lopez (“Kinatay”) or Mercedes Cabral (“Serbis”). Incidentally, Lopez and Cabral have small roles that add a sizzle to the low-humming rhythm. Diaz, who’s appeared in four of Mendoza’s films (but is now hospitalized for a brain aneurysm), is Jose’s effective foil as the lax loafer who lets his wife wear the pants. While the three young actors’ performances could be faulted for bordering on expressionless, it could be argued that the approach best conveys the children’s silent stoicism.

Film Review: Ma' Rosa

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May. 17, 2016. Running time: 110 MIN.

Production

(Philippines) A Pyramide Distribution (in France) release of a Center Stage Productions presentation and production. (International sales: Films Distribution, Paris.) Produced by Loreto Larry Castillo. Executive producer, Brillante Ma Mendoza.

Crew

Directed by Brillante Ma Mendoza. Screenplay, Troy Espiritu. Creative consultant, Armando Lao. Camera (color, HD), Odyssey Flores; editor, Diego Dobles; music/music supervisor, Maria Teresa Barrozo; production designer, Dante Mendoza; art director, Harley Alcasid; set designer, Victor Taniegra; sound (5.1), Albert Michael Idioma; visual effects supervisor, Charmane Espiritu; visual effects, Keep Me Posted; line producer, Carlo Valenzona; associate producers, Antonio del Rosario, Jesthela Lizardo, Henry Burgos; assistant director, Ninay Castinlag; second unit camera, Rogelio Flores, Jr.; casting, Zander Alih.

With

Jaclyn Jose, Julio Diaz, Andi Eigenmann, Felix Roco, Mercedes Cabral, Jomari Angeles, Maria Isabel Lopez, Inna Tuason, Baron Geisler. (Tagalog dialogue)

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  1. Tye says:

    Maggie said it coherent what’s so coherent about a story portraying a police performing their duty to arrest drug peddlers, selling crack is a world wide offense, so the police did their duty, but the question is the extortion part. The police did right by their duty but turned extortionist from a validated criminal couple…. The actress was glaringly not acting looking incomprehensible and has no emotion… It’s unique… So maybe she won…

  2. serious says:

    Really the news here in manila saying a 10 min ovation was given to the premiere of the film… now they say its no. 18 out of 20 of the best. Critics have said, it is not an official cannes competition caliber. So whats the truth. First of, it tackles police corruption. How corrupt can the police be when it arrested a drug peddler or pusher or call it what you may. In the chain of heinous crime, drug peddling may be considered first since in the philippines it carries no bail crime. And if substantial drugs such as shabu is found it carries a death penalty similarbto almost all countries. Well they go on to say the poor has very few option intentionally made singular to emphasize the plight ofbthe poor. But so many poor people inbthe philippines get by with other means, accepting laundry, double jobs etc. The policemen are also poor people so how abput their plight. The premise of the film borders on stupidity.

  3. 555 says:

    Most critics say it is ugly and not quite the quality of a cannes main competition entry. For all we know being the ugliest as you so say makes it unique and might just win… since itsvthe only one you will remember. The ugliest movie in a chosen few beautiful films.

  4. batanga_ka says:

    Who knows it might just win… so many reviews blatantly said it was ugly and mendozas directing was repetitive in nature in all his film. At first they thought he was trying to capture the old italian style of film making giving it a rustic ancient style of film making. But that just mendoza way of making movies. Anyways, be brought along the ethnic handsome guy so attractive to foreign jurors, he could win. My problem w the movie is the portrayal of the dark seedy and corrupt streets of poverty stricken slums of the city. But drug peddling is a big crime in all countries. So how do you justify the corrupt system of the police? Asking for a bribe to let these poor people for bail or able to post bail is a crime by the police. But it became humane for these family to be able to reform and go on w their lives. In most countries phl as well i know drug peddling or pushing is a non bailable offense and crime. So it makes the movie a realistic way of life but the objective of gathering sympathy for the heroine forced to sell drugs to alleviate their poverty will not go well for most viewers.

  5. dale bryan says:

    Not an impressive realistic review w some sympathy thrown in. The plot not uncommon in almost all countries. Problem w the story, why blame the policevas corrupt when you’re apprehended by a policeman that can be bought. You knew it was a crime to sell drugs. So whether extortion for traffic violation or drugs it doesnt matter

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