'Ma' Rosa': Cannes Review

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
A nervy and atmospheric family drama with an underdeveloped screenplay.

The return of Filipino auteur Brillante Mendoza ('Kinatay') to the Cannes competition stars Jaclyn Jose in the title role.

A couple that moonlights as small-time drug dealers from their tiny Manila convenience store, and the duo's children, are confronted with gangrenous police corruption in Ma’ Rosa, the latest gritty slice-of-life film from prolific Filipino director Brillante Mendoza (last year’s Taklub). Not as gorgeously cinematic as his first competition entry in Cannes, 2008’s Serbis, nor as intense and dark as his second Palme-hopeful and best-director winner, Kinatay, this third competition entry needs to lean heavily on its story and characters to keep audiences engaged. However, Troy Espiritu’s plot-driven screenplay and Mendoza’s preference for a gritty, documentary-like style mean that the final result is neither as deep nor as resonant as it could have been. That said, Ma’ Rosa is an otherwise accessible art house item that can only benefit from the Cannes competition stamp of approval. 

Ma’ Rosa is Rosa Reyes (Jaclyn Jose), a slightly fubsy, no-nonsense kind of woman who is first seen shopping for enormous quantities of instant noodles with her teenage son, Erwin (Jomari Angeles). Judging by the fit she throws at the checkout counter because they don’t have any coins left for her change, money is tight. That’s probably why, besides those noodles, she sells small quantities of drugs on the side with her husband (Julio Diaz, another Mendoza regular) from their corner store in Mandaluyong, a sprawling city that’s part of greater Manila.

Some 20 minutes in, the police raid the store and take the couple and their drugs stash to the station, where they are given the possibility to either go to jail without bail or hand over 200,000 pesos (about $4,300), an enormous amount of money they don’t have, or to help police get their supplier so he can cough up the same amount. The handful of policemen all seem to take their request — there’s the threat of violence but not a lot of convincing is needed — as the normal way of doing "business," which is certainly telling but not otherwise explored in any more depth or nuance. 

The drama's midsection is set in and around the police station as the Reyes’s supplier (Kristofer King) is hauled in, he's beaten up and then manages to come up with only a part of the desired sum. The Reyes’s offspring — Erwin, his older brother, Jackson (Felix Roco), and their sister, Raquel (Andi Eigenmann) — are then sent out into Manila to come up with the remainder. Raquel begs family members for donations, Jackson has a hard time trying to sell their TV and the delicately featured Erwin raises the lion’s share of the sum by sleeping with an older man for money.

Screenwriter Espiritu, a former intern/researcher at Mendoza’s Center Stage production outfit, lays out this family drama in a very straightforward manner, with practically no subplots, metaphorical contents or any sense of wider societal context, though viewers will probably infer that the Reyes can hardly be the only ones to find themselves in this particular rough spot. Almost the only thing that advances the plot is the need to pay off the police, with Teresa Barrozo’s score, which is occasionally more noise and rattles than proper music, adding daubs of atmosphere or tension here and there.

But there’s otherwise not much suspense in the traditional sense, because Ma’ Rosa doesn’t really explore the possible consequences of not finding the money, which would infuse the kids’ desperate quest with more suspense and a race-against-the-clock kind of urgency. One can safely assume no one wants to go to jail but it’s never said out loud what would happen to either the parents or the children in their absence, should they fail to come up with the money. Ditto character development, which is minimal. It's clear the family members have got each other’s backs, but there’s not a lot of room for individual characterization or introspection. How does Rosa feel about forcing her children to bail their parents out by paying off these corrupt officers? What drives Erwin to sell his body and, probably, compromise his own morals and literally be made to pay for the crime of his parents? All this is never clear.

Lastly, the film’s title is also a partial misnomer because Mendoza doesn’t stick all that closely to Ma’ Rosa’s point of view. She’s locked away, after all, when her children can be seen around town, trying to get their hands on any funds they can.

Thankfully, and as in his other features, Mendoza again manages to turn his locations into a character in its own right. The decision to shoot in August, which is the typhoon season, adds a highly dramatic touch to the exterior scenes and especially the rain-lashed police roundup. Dark, humid and frequently flooded, Mendoza’s summertime Manila shantytowns are the opposite of hospitable and a place in which institutional corruption might just be another type of decay or rot. And his regular cinematographer, Odyssey Flores, captures everything in scrappy handheld shots that imbue a nervy verite edge. However, a few more close-ups of the characters, such as the one of the title character at the very end — Jose, whose collaboration with Mendoza stretches all the way back to his first feature, is resilient yet understated throughout — might have helped the film pack a greater emotional punch and given more of a sense of the individuals plights within this family.

Production company: Center Stage Productions
Cast: Jaclyn Jose, Julio Diaz, Felix Roco, Andi Eigenmann, Kristofer King, Mercedes Cabral, Jomari Angeles, Maria Isabel Lopez
Director: Brillante Ma Mendoza
Screenplay: Troy Espiritu
Producer: Loreto Larry Castillo
Executive producer: Brillante Ma Mendoza
Director of photography: Odyssey Flores
Production designer: Dante Mendoza
Editor: Diego Marx Dobles
Music: Teresa Barrozo
Sales: Films Distribution

No rating, 110 minutes