“Today’s your lucky day” reads a sign on a passing truck during the opening minutes of Brillante Mendoza‘s “Ma’ Rosa.” But in truth, luck has no place in this dreary and harrowing picture, and when it’s mentioned, it’s always laced with life-sized irony. Essentially a chamber piece that seems to simmer in place for the longest time, what “Ma’ Rosa” actually does is slowly tip-toe towards one of the most heart-wrenching close-ups you’ll like to see this year. Jaclyn Jose and Julio Diaz give near-imperceptibly powerful performances as a couple surviving on the impoverished streets of Manila with four children and to tell their story, Mendoza’s hand-held cellphone aesthetics imbue the experience with bleak austerity that’ll have purists for pretty images running for the hills. But what they’re not considering is the clear method in the ugliness; Odyssey Flores‘ pale cinematography is anti-luminescent with luminous purpose. Even when the sun shines for a brief minute or two on some of the misfortunate souls in this world, it’s never allowed to shine too brightly.

Operating a convenience store in Manila, amidst stacked shops and mountains of endless boxes, crates, and empty glass bottles, Rosa (Jose) and her husband Nestor (Diaz) survive as best they know how. Rosa’s reputation for being a stubborn, sassy but an ultimately kind matriarch makes her a popular figure in the neighborhood, while Nestor is the laid-back guy who’s thinking of how to make more cash for the family. Their solution is to peddle drugs on the side; drugs they get from their local dealer Jomar (Baron Geisler). One day, completely out of the blue and right before Nestor’s birthday, the police barge into Ma’ Rosa’s convenience store and arrest the couple on charges of drug possession. Well, “charges” implies that there’s some kind of due process going on here. On the contrary, the film’s foundation is cemented in the way it eradicates any semblance of justice and makes corruption feel like a natural state for these characters.

Ma' Rosa

The black-as-coal-hearted police officers in “Ma’ Rosa” are looking for any way to get a bribe out of Rosa and Nestor, and the bulk of the film deals with how the two try to come up with the sum. The sequence that sees their three young children hustling for the money is the heart of the film, and a quiet moment with Jose by a food stand towards the end towards the end of the picture, is the soul. The film overflows with bleakness through every pore, including Troy Espiritu‘s screenplay which is written as if he walked the streets of the neighborhood and jotted down conversations verbatim. The camera tracks and holds attention through deceptively long takes, hurling us into the everyday life of these people so intensely that it’s only after 20 minutes — when the couple is arrested — that the film gives you a moment to breathe and reflect at the surroundings with Rosa. Meanwhile, Teresa Barrozo‘s melancholic score does its part at turning tiny screws into our hearts.

Mendoza aims to make the audience unsettled, slightly uncomfortable in our cushioned seats, confused by the commotions and the non-stop derision that Jose and Nestor face from the abusive authority figures. It’s only in this way that we can feel so absorbed when the three children split up and look for the money, each hustling in their own way. We’re in a world where the line “shove this in your mother’s mouth” isn’t an insult, but words that follow the greatest act of kindness. So while it takes its time and is less abrasive to think about than to watch, “Ma’ Rosa” is unforgettably urgent in how it presents the way of life on the streets of Manila.

Once sympathy for the lion-hearted Rosa grips us, it feels unforced and completely earned. We watch as her whole family, including Nestor, follows her lead and we gain immense respect for her as a steel train when it comes to finding a way out and staying positive, never once breaking down in front of the cops or her family. It’s through her that “Ma’ Rosa” ultimately becomes a tiny powerhouse of a film, where misfortune favors the brave and the moral line dividing good from bad becomes a pointless barometer in the face of necessary survival and bottomless family love. Purposefully joyless and bereft of any kind of aesthetic gratification other than the one found in Mendoza’s use of cinema verite and non-sentimental approach, “Ma’ Rosa” is tough-as-nails, and leaves you with a heaviness and a pulsating sympathy that’s impossible to ignore. [B]

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