Portrait of a Filipino family in abject poverty
Cinema, like language per se, is always kinetically evolving. It is best presented when it can freely express objectives, creativity, and worldview without the restriction of rules and standards. When discussions pivot on finding something new and original about a revered filmmaker’s latest work and the discourse goes into impromptu table reading over listlessly sipping overpriced coffee, such exercise may come up either too overreaching or unfairly dismissive, much less too embolden to raise constricting factors that seemingly go under-reviewed and mitigated at times. And often than not, the criticisms fall flat narrowing down myopic concerns about aesthetics – most likely targeting previous outings as reference points.
Such is the case of Brillante Mendoza’s Cannes 2016 entry Ma’Rosa, a film once more fashioned in real-time/found story perspective that dares to present yet another slice of a corrupt society depicted more tormented as ever by the institutional characters in power, and in some quite extent – a portraiture update of exposing police rapscallions who are never intimidated to loosen the arrow to the beat of drums into the ill-fated lots of the economic dregs. Ma’Rosa’s seedy exploration of the underworld police hustles is reminiscent of Mendoza’s horrifying first-person cinema experience in the Cannes 2009 award-winning Kinatay, a rather beautifully deconstructed cautionary tale and much worse than any horror story that can happen more or less in 24 hours should one dare walk the dark side. While in Kinatay, the shadowy characters in blue uniform moonlight not just as protectors but as murky operators of the illegal drug business as well – so human and so multidimensional that though they are inherently represented monstrous enough by being shown dismembering an erring “asset” before its rotten state becomes much stale, they were in fact not devoid of individualities that reminded of what once was their full humanity. However, the erring bunch of policemen in Ma ’Rosa are superficially made distant and shadier this time. The stake at lay-outing the sordidness of third-world villains are left more detached to elaborate sketches and pregnant descriptions – they are still presented as conventional officers who still have to make dutiful appearances and deliver a morsel of social normativity by acknowledging and rewarding their provisional social circles within the gallows of an under-punched and dilapidated interrogation room.
Originally titled, “Palit-Ulo,” Ma’Rosa cannot be summarily dismissed as one too many alleys and spectrums of the Brockaverse. It is compelling in the sense that what is now projected to the wall is a version of the barely reported devious drug-bust procedurals termed as “palit-ulo” where the police, corrupt or otherwise, attempt to arrest a big-time syndicate by coming after the smallest fry in a stab to extort information leading to the heads of the bigger sub-operators up to the local cartels. These small-timers are often released without officially booking their names on the report. Their real identities are even carelessly crosschecked. In Ma’Rosa, this procedure becomes a fund-raising tool for the crooked cops whose chain of commands even paralleled to those more decorated ones on the other side of the “big business.” This is why in the film - the frustration of discovering that Rosa's supplier is actually connected to a police major warranted the good ‘ole police brutality in full display.
This documentary shooting style that mirrors what sheltered eyes don’t usually have to observe from their ivory towers, is forceful and rampant but lacks the precision and immediacy from the golden years of Team Mendoza-Flores, although it remains truthful and engaging. This reality as lensed is third-world cinema at its most conveniently effective, but it is quite a stretch to say they have outdone themselves here. Such is not the case, however, with what is happening in our real-life narratives: SEE when you kill a small-time thief or drug peddler on the street - even if you instill fear in the eyes of a criminal - they will not be turned from doing their deeds. Going through the day with an empty stomach is more fearsome than accepting your imminent death. Such a reality that the Reyeses in Mendoza’s film most probably live by each day. In real-life present Philippineland, POVERTY remains to be the worst cliché that needs to be resolved in an overplayed political melodrama called Abjection. Will there be another Team Mendoza-Flores effort to recapture these ugly images being played now for weeks. And can they interpret and correct this deceitfulness and wretchedness as they did in Ma’Rosa?
Even when it is still undeniably becoming a moving discussion on the controversial subject of cinema of the vile, Ma’Rosa still offers another way of looking at how miserable life can be in a society made more retrogressively evil with corruption and misdirected moralities. Jaclyn Jose’s Rosa Reyes is the roving eyes that envisage the profound effects of abjection in the community where she is resigned to keeping her head above its muddy water. Therefore, that final scene where all the day’s tragic happenstances come ebbing down her throat in a moment’s rest – reflects the harrowing reality that nothing will give her immediate comfort and release. Not even those tasty street foods she chomped while directing her stares back to the bigger picture – which is once again a portrait of a Filipino family scraping by in the poorest of conditions - and this final shot is once again risking the wraths of those that find no resolves in seeing the expansive salaciousness of poverty porn. They will come rushing out of the cinema for any comfort food that their present economic standing could provide.