Ma' Rosa (2016)

Review #1,378

Director:  Brillante Mendoza
Cast:  Jaclyn Jose, Julio Diaz, Baron Geisler
Plot:  Ma' Rosa owns a small convenience store in a poor neighborhood of Manila where everybody likes her.  To make ends meet, Rosa and her husband, Nestor, resell small amounts of narcotics on the side. One day, they get arrested.

Genre:  Drama
Awards:  Won Best Actress, nom. for Palme d'Or (Cannes)
Runtime:  110min
Rating:  R21 for homosexual scene and some drug use
International Sales:  Films Distribution

I first saw a Brillante Mendoza film back in 2009 at the now defunct The Picturehouse at The Cathay.  It was Serbis (2008), which incidentally was the director’s first feature to compete for the Cannes Palme d'Or.  He subsequently won Best Director at the same festival for Kinatay (2009).  In the 11 years since his debut feature, The Masseur (2005), Mendoza has arguably been the most acclaimed filmmaker to emerge from the Philippines, and certainly one of Southeast Asia's most important cinematic voices. 

Ma' Rosa, his latest, is a great work of contemporary neorealist cinema from the geographical region.  But such are his works which are primarily shot on location, often on handheld cameras and featuring a largely non-professional supporting cast that Ma' Rosa comes familiarly from the same modus operandi. 

As the camera follows Jaclyn Jose (Cannes Best Actress winner), who plays the mother of a poor family running an amenities shop, we see in startling authenticity the streets and slums of Mandaluyong, where it was shot.  To make ends meet, the couple sells drugs under-the-table… until one evening when they are caught in an unexpected raid.

Ma' Rosa leaves its most indelible impression as a deeply affecting story in two scenes, without which the film would have lost a good chunk of emotional resonance—its powerful final scene, and a scene at the end of the first act as the couple are transported to the local police station. 

I will leave you to discover the film’s denouement, but in the other scene, Jose's titular character sees a family on the roadside picking and collecting drink bottles.  Through the atmospheric sound design and Jose's controlled emotions, we identify with Rosa's state of mind, which tries to contain a sense of guilt for leaving her family in an unprecedented predicament. 

Guilt later turns into regret, and it is Mendoza's skill in developing this marked shift from guilt to regret primarily through the connection between these two moments (rather than through plotting or dialogue) that elevates Ma' Rosa as a work of remarkable potency. 

Mendoza, who was present for a post-screening dialogue, declined to comment too much on the drug issue in his country, but said that the film has said what he wanted to say.  Ma' Rosa is no doubt a timely film on the devastation of drug dealing and corruption in the Philippines, but it never points any finger at anyone.  It’s impossible to be sentimental to morality when survival is the name of the game. 

Verdict:  Mendoza continues to be one of Southeast Asia’s most important cinematic voices in this raw, organic and deeply affecting film on the devastation of drug dealing on a family.  


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Post-screening dialogue with Brillante Mendoza, facilitated by Singapore filmmaker Boo Junfeng



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