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Snatched from the headlines

It used to be a common come-on for movies that tell gritty stories steeped in reality with no concession to Hollywood glamour or escapism: “snatched from the headlines.”

The term “cinema verite” is sometimes applied to such films, in which the story is told documentary-style, with no intervening conventions or stylistic flourishes. And to make the “reality” all the more real, the subject matter of many such movies is often currently in the news, the topic of the day, the headlines of newspapers.

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Much of the production work on “Ma’ Rosa” was done last year (although the groundwork was laid years before then, says director Brillante “Dante” Mendoza), but the movie could not have been released locally at a better time. The story of Ma’ Rosa and her husband who own a sari-sari store from where they also engage in petty drug-dealing hits headline territory when the couple are picked up in a police raid, coerced to rat on their supplier, and then forced to cough up an outrageous amount in unofficial “bail.”

All this plays out against current headlines about the mounting death toll in the current “war” against drugs, with about 100 drug users and pushers killed by police in “shoot-outs” or else found abandoned in fields and street corners, the corpses often “adorned” with cardboard signs proclaiming their involvement in the drug trade.

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In the early days of this deadly war, I often wondered why, if the police already knew where the users and pushers were holed out all these years, the first of the arrests and killings took place only just before and soon after President Duterte took office. Why was it so easy for the drug lords and their minions to escape police scrutiny?

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Well, “Ma’ Rosa” tells us why. The police are, and have been, in on it all this time. Mr. Duterte’s headline-making announcement about the involvement of five police generals—three of them still in active service—in the drug trade would seem to validate this contention. The leader of the police gang shaking down Ma’ Rosa and her husband pockets bills taken from the collections of a pusher and walks a few meters to the office of the chief of police, who shuts the door behind them, there perhaps to take possession of the spoils. Later in the movie, the same crooked cop is shown putting on his spiffy police uniform, walking out of the station the very picture of the upright law enforcer.

In the scheme of things, Ma’ Rosa, her husband and children are all bottom-dwellers in this feeding frenzy that drugs have engendered. With the exception of their desperate customers, the shopkeepers lie at the bottom of the complex pyramid profiting from “bato,” the colloquial nickname for shabu and also, unfortunately, the nickname of the current director general of the Philippine National Police. They are the last in the chain of profit that leads not just to corrupt police officers but even to politicians.

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But in the movie, Ma’ Rosa and her family are more than just abject victims. “Dog-eat-dog” describes the arrangement where everyone feeds on the miseries of everyone else. And that is the operative term in the community where the family moves and transacts its business.

She may be stalwart and devoted to her family, but Ma’ Rosa knows full well what her sideline engenders. She is not above exploiting friendships and blood relations, and turns a blind eye to the coping mechanisms of her grown children.

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The younger son feeds off the devotion of an older male lover. The older son sells the family TV set (his only contribution to the collective effort to set his parents free) and in the process beats up the child snitch who turned them in. Ma’ Rosa’s husband feeds his own drug habit and looks on as his wife copes. The older daughter, meanwhile, excels in emotional blackmail, borrowing from relatives who, despite their reluctance, eventually give in.

The police personify exploitation, abusing even the gay preteen who serves them hand and foot, but even they are in turn used by higher-ups. Everyone’s looking out for No. 1, but for Ma’ Rosa and her family, No. 1 is the tight circle they have woven around themselves, a safe habitat amid the squalor of their immediate community.

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Much has been said about the acting feats in the movie. And indeed, Jaclyn Jose as the title character fully deserves her Cannes Best Actress win. Many have parodied her stoic, often monotone, portrayals. But her style serves her well in this film, reining in the emotion that would have been so easy to let spill like a dam breaking. Searing indeed is the final scene, where Ma’ Rosa finally lets loose her tears, while finding comfort in a stick of squid balls as she watches a street family calling it a day.

“Ma’ Rosa” has also been called a masterpiece of ensemble acting, and that it is. All the actors work together well, none more so than the corps of policemen: Mark Anthony Fernandez, Baron Geisler, and Mon Confiado among them, who are relentless in their portrayal of hard-edged meanness but also brotherly camaraderie.

Mention must also be made of the atmospheric effects (“music” is a misnomer of sorts) of Teresa Barrozo, and the dynamic, antic camera work of director of photography Odyssey Flores, who takes viewers on a dizzying, disconcerting tour of Manila’s slums.

Mendoza told TV interviewer Boy Abunda that he takes months to plan and prepare the shots and setups, talks in-depth to his actors, and when the camera starts grinding, leaves it up to them to make up their dialogue. The result may be chaotic filmmaking, but it gives “Ma’ Rosa” an edge that is, as the come-on goes, “snatched from the headlines.”

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TAGS: Brillante Mendoza, Cannes, cinema verite, drugs, Films, Jaclyn Jose, Ma’ Rosa, Rodrigo Duterte
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