Ma’ Rosa, Brillante Mendoza’s third film to enter into main competition at Cannes opens with the Rosa (Jacklyn Jose in her historic Cannes-winning role) refusing to accept a candy in exchange for the few centavos change at a grocery counter. Outside, dark clouds would turn into downpour as we see her haggling again with the taxi driver to bring them nearer to their house. Rosa’s woes that day, promising to be a “lucky” one (intentionally subtitled from a local product tagline), did not end with those little, seemingly inconsequential negotiations, as the rain proved to be a harbinger of fate turning against itself. Working on the usual found-story screenplays, details like these negotiations would prove to be critical in understanding the milieu of Mendoza’s latest outing into the Manila underbelly, the film becoming a metaphor of a Filipino society that functions as a set of transactions.
The cinematic environ of Ma’ Rosa resembles that of its Cannes predecessors, Serbis and Kinatay. It also feels spiritually similar in the way themes like family, poverty, corruption, a microcosm of society in disarray, are encapsulated in the usual slice-of-life fashion, all happening in a day. Interestingly, the film seems to be a conflation of both previous films’ story elements – the crumbling family at the heart of Serbis is thrown into the machinations of the corrupted police force in Kinatay. Though the journey into the dark lairs of corruption in Ma’ Rosa is less terrifyingly evil in its intensity, Mendoza is able to establish the familiar spaces of discomfort and menace. But unlike the novice police cop (Coco Martin) in Kinatay, Rosa navigates these spaces (the immediate commune of her store) with naturalistic motherly grace. She seems built to resist and withstand whatever shortchanging she encounters that we silently root for her despite her illegal trade. Kinatay was a clear descent into hell; the young police’s inescapability is final. With Rosa, we know her steadfastness in the face of these negotiations is something that comes out of a deep sense of responsibility and survival.
The central negotiation is one involving a P200,000 payoff money in exchange of Rosa and her husband’s (Julio Diaz) release, after being captured from a raid that seized from them packets of shabu (meth). The couple sells these drugs mainly through their sari-sari store; the trade operationalized in numbers, codes and couriers. They are brought to the back of a precinct, already a questionable procedure that precedes the more shady transaction that the corrupt police members subject the errant couple. Rosa’s kids (Felix Roco, Jomari Angeles and Andi Eiganmann) help raise the amount needed to free their parents – we learn that Rosa’s capture was tipped of by a neighbor in exchange of a brother’s release (the term “palit-ulo”, which is the film’s initial title) each eventually muddied by the circumstances of their own trades, thrown into the harsh realities of their poverty and powerlessness. In Serbis, the family relentlessly holds on to the dilapidated theater like it is the last bastion of stability and normalcy before the disintegration of their ties, made completely trivial and irrelevant by the moral decadence that populate their run-down property. In Ma’ Rosa, Mendoza returns to these familial ties and tries to find the virtue in its fortitude to withstand and triumph over moral compromises and personal risks.
Ma’ Rosa also mirrors both previous films in the way Mendoza orchestrates controlled chaos and claustrophobia. Characters inhabit the cramped spaces – the crumbling cinema of Serbis or the dark, cramped interior of a vehicle in Kinatay – as if they are holding on to dear life. Odyssey Flores’ cinematography, the usual visual standout in these films with its documentary-like aesthetic, some scenes shot as if they are news reels giving its subject matter a sense of urgency. Flores’ camerawork establishes a sense of claustrophobia as if the camera is also looking for a space to breathe, a space to capture or frame a respite from the hustle, clueless where to position itself – like that compelling raid and capture scene, the audience is thrown into the height of shock and helplessness of the characters. This negotiation for space mirrors the negotiations, both the central and the seemingly minor. Except through Mendoza’s lens, the trivial and intangible is not ever unimportant; they make up an entire whole. Amid the chaos, we see glimpses of urbanization (a “to Makati” signage, a far view of high-rise buildings, accentuated English conversations of call center agents), but they are lifeless and indifferent, paling in comparison to the decay and deprivation that inhabit its fringes.
Much has been said about that final close-up of Jacklyn Jose, and rightly so. The close-up with the myriad emotions that simmer under it, gains more power every recall as news stories of gunned down drug pushers also included younger perpetrators and even a mother. Could she be the real Rosa? Could the fictional Rosa, though finally clinching the last tranche of their ransom money, ever find a genuine release from the poverty of their everyday life? But Mendoza does not settle for answers, and similarly, we are faced with the reality of a bloody drug war, which has yet to find a resolution that would still prove to be less murky than what the film portrays. In the final moments of the film, the camera has momentarily find something to rest itself on – a shot of a family huddled together as they close their mobile store for the night, an image that recalls an earlier shot of a family arranging soda bottles, an image that also mirrors Rosa’s family huddling in the police backroom. This final image of a family is where it seems the camera has found solace and relief from the sight of urban squalor and the cycle of misfortune and poverty. But as Rosa looks on, her face could not hold on to her momentary sense of achievement. Like that last shot of Nora Aunor’s in Thy Womb, the finality brings with it a semblance of defeat and heartbreak. Rosa eats the stick of fishballs like everything depended on it, her tears unable to belie the bleakness of her future.