Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The much-talked-about final scene of “Ma’ Rosa,” amusingly considered the main reason for Jaclyn Jose’s historic best actress win at the Cannes Film Festival, will go down in history as one of the most unforgettable moments in Philippine cinema — a one-off flash of brilliance whose spontaneity in light of the chaotic circumstances leading to it makes it all the more affecting.
It ends on a high note, but without histrionics or fatalities common in narratives that plead for remembrance: It’s merely Jose, as the titular character Rosa, eating a stick of fish balls, one by one, her eyes welling with tears, possibly remembering how tiring and terrifying the past few hours have been and feeling the uncertainty of the hours ahead. It is a few minutes of acting masterclass directed with unnerving precision, with Rosa looking at a family in front of her closing a mobile sari-sari store, alluding to a previous scene in which she somberly observes another family, who are arranging bottles on a sidewalk, from a police car. Both moments are spent witnessing the wholeness of these families leave her in pieces, with the closing one the only time she can take a deep breath before walking again into another maze of unpleasant realities.
Her act of eating fish balls registers so strongly that it recalls Proust’s madeleine in its evocation of involuntary memory, in this case that which is relevant not only to people who have experienced abject poverty but also to those who constantly see it in the flow of every day. No sooner has Rosa dipped this comfort food into the sauce than the viewer, in a wondrous sync of emotion, feels this powerful beating of the heart to match Rosa’s unease, her effort to control her tears providing a stark contrast to the viewer’s earnest wish that they fall. And when they do, when Rosa disappears from view but with a presence that is still very much felt, it becomes clear that the film has achieved this impressive iconography of Philippine poverty with its skill of composing fiction that dances with reality. The effect of this scene is shattering in the way the open-endedness has a semblance of finality, how the audience is made to feel that this is not a slice of life but life itself — a complete, finite existence, moving forward, no turning back, no second chances.
Working with a screenplay by Troy Espiritu, whose linear course is propped up by the unmistakable motif of Bing Lao, the director Brillante Mendoza is able to make “Ma’ Rosa” thoroughly engaging by highlighting the humor that comes with the tragedy. Not randomly, not sloppily as he did in the past, but with remarkable timing from the actors who, with filthy grace, make every haggle a memorable encounter, who turn expletives into sweet-sounding retorts. For the most part, it doesn’t feel any different from an episode of situation comedy: a stretch of difficulty in which the characters make do with the circumstances, going through all sorts of bargaining, accepting, and resisting. The only difference is there is so much at stake that any wrong turn means losing freedom or a life — a tragicomedy, by all means, propelled by helplessness.
Mendoza is never subtle in his approach to poverty, much to the dismay of those who complain frequently about poverty porn. And to his credit, “Ma’ Rosa” substantiates fully the reason for being of these films: For how can one tackle poverty, in a society where it is endemic, without actually showing and emphasizing its very image? Part of understanding the core of being Filipino is examining the conditions that allow this poverty to subsist, discovering along the way that it is not all too simple, that it still matters to tell these stories because it validates their truth inasmuch as it risks desensitizing the viewer. In Mendoza’s body of work, it is always asserted that poverty is never only about being poor, nor only about being unable to eat adequately or buy the bare necessities, nor only about the consequences: It is the plurality — and by extension, specificity — of such experiences, the connections with larger schemes, the totality of which is impossible to achieve but attempts to present it and argue are made nevertheless.
Something held long over the years has been the idea that Mendoza doesn’t know how to set up a camera and determine the appropriate angle or movement for his sequences. For in many of his films, it all feels fortuitous, this method of following the character on foot until something happens and the cinematographer, obeying his instruction to punctuate the drama, would just come close to the face or the action, or run when the character runs, or fall when she falls, and the poor viewer is supposed to think this authenticity accounts for a richer experience. In “Ma’ Rosa,” two sequences stand out in their gruesome impact. First, the arrest of Rosa and her husband, Nestor (Julio Diaz), involving a choreography moving from the outside to the inside and to the outside again to show the dynamics between the house and the community, revealing how these spaces are in fact intensifiers of desperation. And second, when Rosa’s son Jackson (Felix Roco), brawls with a young man, and the physical chase also becomes a chase for sanity. These rewardingly long sequences, comparable in effectiveness with how the rain is exemplified as something as incessantly natural as misfortune, make room for a reconsideration of Mendoza’s polarizing aesthetics.
“Ma’ Rosa” is closer to “Kinatay” visually — each film being a depiction of a harrowing journey, alternating between movement and close-ups, a visual treatment so unsophisticated it is often called ugly — and aurally, with Maria Teresa Barrozo’s periodic soundscapes of incongruous yet intimate rhythms heightening the emotion as much as trapping it until it is muted. The mix of urban sounds and these fragments of electronic torpedoes does a lot to provide the characters with recognizable soul, and critics who find fault with “Ma’ Rosa” for lacking in internal intricacy only have to scrutinize the music and sound design to discover that its undercurrent is even richer, or darker, than the crimes on the surface.
Both at the core and in the seams, “Ma’ Rosa” fulfills the promise of a cinema that enables fruitful discussion not only on content but also on form, both aspects complementing each other to produce a riveting piece of drama that makes strong claims of corruption and cruelty. It points fingers at actual people and institutions, whether plainly (the office of the chief of police, the high-ranking official protecting a drug pusher) or insinuatingly (the cleverest would be a boy named Bongbong being beaten hard in the face and body). In light of a newly instated administration, one can only hope that this characteristic boldness would lead to stories of less hungry and desperate people, although, as in Mendoza’s films, the end is only as uncertain as the beginning.