BFI LFF 2016: MA’ ROSA (2016)

Director Brillante Mendoza’s Ma’ Rosa is a gritty evocation of poverty and survival in the backstreets of Manila starring Cannes Best Actress Jaclyn Jose.

Mother Courage

by Alexa Dalby

Ma’ Rosa

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Jaclyn Jose, a huge soap star in the Philippines, won the Best Actress award in Cannes this year for her portrayal of drug-dealing matriarch Ma’ Rosa. Director Brillante Mendoza’s gritty, verite-style drama focuses on a family living in the desperate poverty of a Manila shanty town. Ma’ Rosa and her husband Nestor (Julio Diaz) run a tiny convenience store. We see her buying her stock of instant noodles and quibbling about her lack of change, so it’s clear money is very tight. To make ends meet they sell wraps of cocaine on the side to regular customers. They have four teenage children and though they are struggling, they are just managing to survive until the police suddenly raid them one evening as they are having their evening meal. But it’s not a genuine bust – the police are corrupt and it’s a money-making ploy. They hold the couple in seclusion at the police station and blackmail them. To avoid being sent straight to jail, they have  to come up with 200,000 pesos of so-called ‘bail money. To Ma’ Rosa and Nestor it’s a huge amount, which they simply don’t have. The alternative is to inform on their pusher.

Manila is in the throes of a typhoon. When Ma’ Rosa hauls home her bags of noodles and she and her husband are dragged away by the police, they are drenched in atmospheric torrential rain – so much so that the police provide them with dry clothes. The hand-held camera gives a documentary feel  to the dark, dirty and muddy warren of narrow streets and alleys. The ongoing family drama has the feel of taking place in real time over the course of a terrible night. The naturalistic performances draw you in to an emotional story of increasing desperation.

As the nightmare intensifies, Ma’ Rosa can’t afford loyalty. Her dealer Jomar (Kristofer King) is entrapped and beaten up. But she still has to pay for her freedom. She sends her children out to try and do whatever they can to raise the impossible sum of money needed to free their parents – by selling worthless items, prostitution and begging and borrowing from unsympathetic relatives. There are hints that police corruption goes beyond the local level and the ultimate fate of Jomar and his wife, who has been summoned to the police station but cannot afford to buy his freedom, is never explained.

Ma’ Rosa is a survivor in a harsh dog-eat-dog society that perpetuates poverty for its people. Mendoza’s film is direct and unsparing in showing its flawed humanity.


Ma’ Rosa screens at the BFI London Film Festival on 6 and 9 October 2016.


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