Brillante Mendoza’s works have always been the stereotypical Filipino ‘indie’. They have always been showcases of the underbelly of society, complete with its persistent problems of poverty, corruption, and vulnerability, as well as its occasional glories—resilience in the face of tragedy, and capability for sacrifice out of love for family. The particular subjects may have been varied, but the approach has been constantly realist, and devoid of any visual spectacle other than what could be witnessed in actual life.
Ma’ Rosa is another entry in this tradition. In his works from the previous years, Mendoza wandered the archipelago: in Taklub (2015), he portrayed the brutal aftermath of Typhoon Yolanda in the Visayas; in Thy Womb (2012), he orchestrated a unique drama out of the cultural norms of Muslim people in Mindanao. Now, he returns to the slums of Manila, the place out of which he built his world-renowned reputation as a social-realist filmmaker.
Disclaimer: this article presents a reading of the film and its message. It necessarily shares details of plot and other elements, or ‘spoilers’.
This is not to say that Ma’ Rosa is merely a retreading of familiar territory. In fact, the movie’s premise—a police crackdown on the illegal drug trade—could not have been more relevant and timely. The film was released in the Philippines in July 2016, on the first month of the Duterte administration. Filipinos have just elected a president who campaigned with a promise to wage war on drugs, and these days the evening news are filled with reports of drug users surrendering to law enforcement en masse; masked motorcycle ‘vigilantes’ murdering people on the streets; and empowered, corrupt police inflicting abuse and violence everywhere.
In the film, Mendoza approaches the subject through the perspective of an unremarkable family, living in a community of urban poor. Rosa (Jaclyn Jose) is a sari-sari (convenience) store owner who tries to make ends meet for her family of four children by selling narcotics on the side with her husband, Nestor (Julio Diaz). On the eve of Nestor’s birthday, they are preparing for dinner (while a Last Supper image hangs ominously over the dining table) when they fall into a police buy-bust operation, and the couple is arrested and brought to the local police station.
The law enforcement officers turn out to be an unscrupulous, greedy gang. They play a corrupt version of good cop/bad cop, alternately threatening Rosa and Nestor with non-bailable detention, then offering freedom in exchange for 200 thousand pesos. It is striking how everyone, from the officers to Rosa and her children, unthinkingly calls the bribe money as bail money, as if it was a legal option—we may venture to read this as an indictment of the pervasiveness of moral corruption and weakness of institutions in Filipino society.
The cops taunt Rosa and Nestor: if they don’t have the money, find a way, they say (“Gawan niyo ng paraan.”). And Rosa’s anxious daughter and two sons, when they visit the station to see their parents—they indeed do everything to find a way. At this point, the film becomes a stark display of the family’s “pagkapit sa patalim” (literally, holding on to a knife blade), as the sons and the daughter sell their property, sell their pride, and sell their dignity just to save their parents from jail. Tellingly, here, Mendoza’s camera lingers on the mud that the children step on as they go on their ways looking for money, and the dirt clings to their shoes, symbolic of their suffering. At another point, Raquel (Andi Eigenmann) hails and rides a pedicab in front of a Shrine of Divine Mercy; inside the cab, the camera pans from a religious icon to the feet of the driver on the pedals, as if to remind the viewer, nasa Diyos ang awa, nasa tao ang gawa (mercy is in the hands of God, but realization is in the hands of men). Less symbolic and more upfront is a passing, judgmental look at a group of middle-class, call-center employees in a café, where Erwin (Jomari Angeles) is waiting for a ‘sponsor’; their conversation is shallow, but held in English, and Erwin is suddenly made conscious of the mud on his shoes.
One scene certain to impress on Filipino audiences is the brief but memorable appearance of Aunt Tilde (Maria Isabel Lopez). Earlier in the film, Rosa said she would rather rot in jail than ask help from her. Raquel, against this explicit instruction by her mother, goes to her aunt and is promptly scolded. Her aunt unleashes her hatred for Rosa on her niece, recalling how she was rejected by Rosa when she first migrated to the city; but now that they have been more prosperous, here comes Rosa through her niece asking for help. Tilde’s son (another call center employee) does not harbor the same grudge, and he willingly lends Raquel money. But just as she was about to leave, Tilde gave her money too, even as she continued to berate Raquel and her mother. And it is moving, because any Filipino viewer would proudly recognize the love-hate manner in which we would help out relatives in their most desperate hours, despite any longstanding feuds (or hurt, “hinanakit”). It is the virtuous manifestation of the cops’ mocking and corrupt suggestion of “magtulungan tayo.” (“Let’s help each other.”)
Ma’ Rosa has the appearance of simply showing things as is, but in some moments it is immersive and provocative. There are several shots, for instance, of the camera silently following characters in the long, eventless walk they take from deep inside the police station out onto the street. The break in the narrative forces us to ask, what is going on in these characters’ minds? What are they thinking, what are they feeling?
The viewers, ourselves, may feel helplessness and frustration at the vicious cycle of corruption and addiction that the film portrays so thoroughly. The corrupt cops are always looking for bigger catch, and the present victim always ends up being buried deeper in moral and financial debt. Then there is the young teenager working as an errand runner in the station: isn’t it that this constant exposure to corruption at a young age will inevitably lead to a malfunctioning sense of right and wrong in the future?
As for Rosa, although her immediate problem of avoiding jail has already been solved, the film ends with her in tears, after a long characterization as a tough matriarch. What breaks her down are the multiple families she sees on the streets—selling goods on the sidewalk, or collecting empty bottles to be sold for recycling—striving against greater odds to earn a living, but doing so through honest means, together. Despite its intense realism, Ma’ Rosa seems to offer a platitude at the end: that life is not easy, and while taking risks for the benefit of family is a noble end, dishonorable means will only do more harm than good.
A question of values
Is a Brillante Mendoza film beautiful?
This question will always be polarizing. Not too many Filipinos watch his films in the first place, but the people had a chance to sample his work when he directed President Duterte’s first State of the Nation Address. Tellingly, reactions to the program’s unusual camera-work was split with some calling it “weird,” others proclaiming it “brilliant,” and still others judging it a neutral but somewhat dismissive “artsy.”
Mendoza is clearly loved in Cannes and other international film festivals, but there is always the specter of Orientalism, exoticism, intellectualism and many other isms. When Jaclyn Jose won the Cannes Best Actress prize for Ma’ Rosa, it is, in a manner, also another prize for Mendoza’s direction, style, and filmmaking philosophy. Jose is known locally for her melodramatic style, but was told by Mendoza to “don’t act,” and the resulting natural performance was unusual for Jose, but standard for a Mendoza picture. Many in the audience used to her flourishes may find her Ma’ Rosa character underwhelming, if it were not for the Cannes award, which certainly changes the perception of some.
The question of beauty of a Brillante Mendoza film, in spirit, is then the same as asking, does art need to be beautiful? Ma’ Rosa, Brillante’s other works and many more indie movies are certainly not exciting in the style of a Hollywood blockbuster. They are also definitely not entertaining in the same tradition. At a visual, sensual level, these social-realist indie works are often bleak. To appreciate and enjoy these, much is required from the viewer, who also needs to be of a certain, welcoming disposition.
It is, ultimately, a question of values, of what is good and beautiful in film.
The featured image for this article, a still from the film, is taken from facebook.com/marosafilm/, and the author claims its publication here to be within the limits of fair use.