When you see so much unhappiness and injustice surrounding you, and the exploitation of your countrymen is a daily occurrence, how do you begin to make a film about this? Ma’ Rosa, Brillante Mendoza’s third film in competition at Cannes, treads this familiar ground, hoping to dissect the plight of the working-class Filipino, but struggles to shine a fresh light in its depiction of his nation’s suffering.
“Ma’ Rosa” (Jaclyn Jose) and her husband Nestor (Julio Diaz) are struggling shopkeepers and parents of four children who sell a few narcotics on the side, to pay the bills. Eventually a drug bust occurs, and narcotics are found in their home. The police inform Rosa and Nestor that if they cannot make a bail of 100,000 Philippine Pesos, they will be incarcerated for a year. Rosa and Nestor argue that these drugs are not theirs in a confrontation that drags for several long minutes, but once they are told that their sentence can be waived if they deliver their supplier to the police, they quickly change their tune. Complying in a scheme to apprehend Jomar (Kristofer King), they soon learn that this is not enough for the authorities, who are looking for bigger fish, and the price of their bail is halved. Meanwhile, Jomar must also face bail, or rat out a bigger name than his. When he tries to trick the police by seeking help from an officer he has connections to, he is brutally savaged. In order to raise bail, their families must collect debts, beg for loans, and pawn their few pitiful possessions.
Grim circumstances can bear moments of beauty, but Mendoza is so unflinchingly committed to his vision of ugliness, that he does all that he can to erase any semblance of levity or gratification. The shaky, unfocused lensing is immediately tedious; the score is gratingly ominous; and once Mendoza begins to portray the efforts of family and friends to raise money for the bail of their loved ones, Ma’ Rosa becomes banally repetitive. It is also perplexing to see the collection of money treated as something that is difficult, or why these people would even live in such misery, in the first place, when they are seemingly able to come up with the money relatively easily, and in a way that suggests such a proclivity for initiative and resourcefulness, that one is left wondering why it cannot be applied to daily life? During these endeavours, it also grows incredibly difficult to become invested in the characters: when they find people who are willing to contribute funds toward their loved ones’ bail, these people are unappreciative, unable to even utter a gracious “Thank you.” Even if someone is willing to waive their entire paycheque, they are asking, “Is that all? Don’t you have other friends that you can borrow from?” It’s not as though there is good acting to save the film, either: the single moment of great performance comes, too late, in Jaclyn Jose’s final tear-filled close-up.
Overwhelmed by an absence of direction, editing, cinematography, or acting, Ma’ Rosa is completely devoid of anything that makes it cinematic, or even simply watchable. If you want to make a film about utter emptiness or misery, without any form of happiness as a counterpoint to show what is lost in that oppression, it will lack stakes, and it will sound one-note and hollow, but not for the reasons that you would want it to be.