Going to see a Brillante Mendoza film at the Cannes is an awkward experience. He’s been granted fairly regular festival berths both here and in Venice while exhibiting to the world a series of films that foreground the poor, the powerless and the oppressed. To exit the grime and grimness of his latest, Ma’ Rosa, and make your way through the supercars and the millionaires struggling to get their tuxedoed selves into the Palais is a contrast that can give you vertigo. To apply your critical faculties soberly and steadily is a genuine effort, but we must.
Set in Manila, Ma’ Rosa is the story of the titular matriarch (Jaclyn Jose), who runs a small shop in a rundown, potholed street in the shantytown of Mandaluyong. Night is upon the city and struggling with her shopping and the tropical downpour, she returns with her goods to find husband Nestor (Julio Diaz) shooting up again. “Tomorrow’s my birthday,” he explains. She shrugs it off and is herself a user. The shop is a front for drug-selling as well. However, when the police raid the premises following a tip-off, it soon becomes apparent that all of their lives could easily be destroyed and they’re suddenly in the grip of arbitrary forces. Leaving the children at home, the police take Rosa and her husband through a backdoor to the basement of the police station where they are offered a deal: snitch and pay up a hefty sum of kickback or be convicted of drug-dealing. Facing life imprisonment and desperate to get home to their three children, the take option one with unseemly alacrity.
When their supplier Jomar (Kristoffer King) is taken in and beaten up, their situation is only slightly improved and Jomar’s greatly worsened, bleeding on the floor and unconscious. He will be offered a similar deal later on. Now, it’s their three kids who must somehow raise the cash. Jackson (Felix Roco), Erwin (Jomari Angeles) and Raquel (Andy Eigenmann) set about respectively selling their television, prostituting themselves and doing the round of relatives to beg for help. At this point the film opens up to a wider world and begins to gain a texture of daytime life in the city: the markets, love hotels and squalor. Mendoza shoots everything on handheld cameras and the scenes develop with an urgency even if it mostly seems in real-time. The nighttime tungsten orange of the street lighting and the urine-coloured neon of the interiors makes for a grueling visual experience which is why the daylight of the latter-half offers precious relief.
The unhappy fate of the family and their respective humiliation is given no such relief, however. If the daughter slips on some muddy water and falls over, we get that too. Meanwhile, the cops order chicken and beer and even filch some of the drugs themselves to celebrate the boon they can reap from the family’s bad luck. However, is corruption actually that bad? At least, it gives Rosa’s family an out. If they were being held upstairs in the official police station, properly booked, they would almost certainly go to jail for life and there wouldn’t be any leeway. They are, after all, unquestionably, guilty. Neither does it help their case that Rosa herself is a character lacking in charisma. We can feel sorry for her in her plight, pity her even, but how useful an emotion is that? Stripped of any context, we never really understand her.