‘Ma’ Rosa’: I know a neighborhood just like that


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Sweaty bodies from a downpour after sweltering heat, cramped living spaces, food in plastic bags made me queasy, but I saw the point just in time. Photos courtesy of Brillante Mendoza

A VIEWER ambushed right outside the movie house said he had found “Ma’ Rosa” gripping because, “It felt like I was right there.”

That’s not all the reason that I was glued to my theater seat. Had I stopped at feeling like I was right there, I’d have run away. What happened was, I felt safe knowing it was just a movie, that these were actors playing roles, and that it would be over soon.

Only thus did I convince myself that the evening news was really more horrific than what was unfolding onscreen via the latest from Brillante Mendoza.

I know a neighborhood just like that. Small-time gambling, sundry forms of addiction, make-some-money-quick schemes in a community where the same people have lived for so long, most everyone is known by an alias—heck, I know a lot of neighborhoods just like that.

Real war on drugs

And I know a woman just like Ma’ Rosa. We know each other by our nicknames. I went to her son’s wake, and her grandson’s. There’s just no way an outsider can tell what many others tell me she does, because it doesn’t seem like she ever made enough money. Her kids never went to college. Her house has remained unfinished for decades. I couldn’t imagine how she got that sort of business done between her laundry, marketing, cooking and babysitting (she has never had house help)—until I watched “Ma’ Rosa.”

The movie makes dealing drugs look so… doable; and everything else that happens around the main character, so real and commonplace! Was it Mendoza’s good fortune that the movie set didn’t need much cinematic designing, or should he be credited for the way that whole place moved like a single breathing creature to tell its story?

Sweaty bodies from sudden rain at the end of a sweltering day, cramped quarters, food consumed from plastic bags made me queasy. I complained initially about the shaky visual, but shut up as soon as I saw the point. Life in this barangay can only be uncertain and maddening in equal parts.

Is it uncanny that national events in the past three weeks—only three weeks—have mirrored circumstances in “Ma’ Rosa.” Or was Mendoza simply compelled to present a constant reality that is repeatedly overtaken by more urgent headline grabbers, like natural disasters, the presidential election and kidnappings in the south?

Massive as the current war on drugs is as reported by media, the impact of specific aspects is more acute when essayed on the big screen, inside a darkened cinema, with one feeling like he’s “right there” as it happens. For example, how law enforcers have their way with suspects inside the police station. Or how the evil hierarchy works, with higher-ups directing the stream of events like disembodied ghosts from behind impenetrable smokescreens.

But it’s ours

As the global drug menace goes, what’s happening in the country may be but a pinch of the poison, but it’s our tragedy, so the movie’s message matters. There’s a drug pusher right around the corner. According to what I see in the news reports, he is most likely in cheap jersey shorts, sando and loose-fitting rubber slippers. There are drug users in every neighborhood. There may be one in any random family.

The real-life war is being fought by those who are presumed to know how. So I’m supposed to look at “Ma’Rosa” only as a movie. If it were not so zealously, almost lovingly, made (no manipulative excesses in sound, dialogue, or acting), I might not be so thoughtfully moved.

Jaclyn Jose is the accurate choice for a cast anchor as Rosa Reyes (literally and ironically, “rose of kings”). By now, everyone knows that she ran away with the Best Actress trophy in Cannes. I applaud most of the support performers—Julio Diaz, Baron Geisler, Mark Anthony Fernandez, Maria Isabel Lopez, Mercedes Cabral, Felix Roco. They were such efficient actors that they succeeded in making their characters familiar and, in the case of the “victims,” sympathetic. I confess that, caught inside the narrative and without question or prompting, I took the side of Rosa Reyes’ family against the policemen.

Reality check: The “persecuted” couple sold drugs. That cannot be good by any measure. The family is not an isolated case as far as misfortune goes. Young actor Jomari Angeles, as one of the sons, “sold his body,” figuratively, to help bail out his parents. Is that any worse than poor Filipinos who sell body parts, literally? I have no answer, and that’s another story.

The Fishball Finale

At this point, in any case, I must join friends and other viewers who have paid tribute to Jose for the unexpected last scene, the powerful Fishball Finale. Who would have thought? I have no words for it except, “Perfection.” What I managed to convey to the director via Facebook was, “Brilliant(e)!”


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A friend asked, just now, “But what does it mean?” All I could come up with was, “She is hungry. She can do something about that, but not about what will happen next, when her life resumes. She wants to stay in this fleeting moment of control and safety but she can’t because it is not her reality right now.”

The friend continued, “I waited and waited for her to start acting…”

“Didn’t you like that—that she wasn’t acting?” I pointed out.

She retorted, “Hey, I was gushing! I was just doing a Jaclyn Jose.”

So why was “Ma’ Rosa” nearly pulled out of the very few cinemas that programmed it for screening for only a week?

Because “Ice Age: Collision Course” probably needed more than three theaters at the cineplex; and “Alice Through the Looking Glass” more than two. Because Alexander Skarsgard continues to mesmerize with his eight-pack as “Tarzan.” Because “I Love You to Death” was a better bet? Or maybe “Achy Breaky Hearts.” This, too, is another story.

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