Even by his own exacting standards, Ma’Rosa is one of Brillante Mendoza’s most austere films – forty-eight hours in the life of Rosa Reyes, played by Jaclyn Rose, the manager of a sari-sari store in suburban Manila who is hauled into the local police station for dealing ice. Over the course of a long night, and an even longer following day, Rosa, her husband Nestor (Julia Diaz) and her children Erwin (Jomari Angeles), Raquel (Andi Eigenmann) and Jackson (Felix Roco) are forced to come up with a hundred thousand pesos in order to be released. This is ostensibly bail money, but it’s clear to all concerned that the police, led by Sumpay (Baron Geisler), are extorting the family, forcing them to sell off their possessions, tap into the community pool savings, and eventually resort to prostitution in order to come up with the required amount. Meanwhile, Rosa gives the police the name of her dealer to help defray costs, although this proves to be a bit of a dead end when he warns his boss instead of informing on him, putting even more pressure on the Reyes family to source the money.
All of that is shot on a digital camera that gravitates to about chest height, just below the level of the eyes, as if being held close to the body in order to allow Mendoza to move through the film’s many crowd scenes as unobtrusively as possible. With no stabilizing perspective, no clear distinction between inside and outside, and sudden shifts in weather, that makes for a blurry, hazy and profoundly disorienting experience that is often quite difficult to parse visually. Even the police station, which is supposedly the most sequestered space in the film, is full of buckets to catch the omnipresent rain. Similarly, even though the police are supposed to provide order and clarity to the surrounding cityscape, the station tends to generate rambling trajectories that loop into the city and back, over and over again, as Rosa and her family devise ever more desperate ways to come up with the cash. Very early on, it feels as if the police’s only real point of reference is themselves, and that rather than protect the local community, their forays into the local community are just ways of sequestering themselves from it, and gathering enough resources to feel exempt from it.
All those features would designate Ma’Rosa as a docudrama, except that Mendoza’s vision is considerably more disorienting than either a regular documentary or a regular drama. Unlike films shot on a phone that try to rival the sharpness of a regular camera, this is a film shot on a camera that embraces the limitations of phone footage. For the most part, it doesn’t even look like a current iPhone recording, but as if it has been shot on one of the earliest films to have camera functioning, a device much more continuous with the Nokia flip phones that pop up regularly during the investigation. In every scene, the lens is covered with a humid slick, a thick coating of moisture that prevents any person and object being too discernible, evoking a world in which there is too much foreground, and everything is blurring up against the eyeballs too uncomfortably to be properly brought into focus. As a result, Mendoza’s own shifts in focus feel quite spontaneous, especially since virtually all of the film takes place amidst crowds, or groups of people so big that we’re never able to discern each person’s specific role. At times, it’s impossible to even tell what the focus is supposed to be, so dispersed is the film’s ambience, relegating Rosa to the margins of her story, and making Jose quite an idiosyncratic decision for the Best Actress award at Cannes.
Those visual features make for a human drama that’s similarly bleary-eyed, with much o the action appearing to be unfolding in slow motion, everyone slightly dazed and decelerated by the humidity. While the few bursts of music provide some momentum, they’re too melodramatic and self-consciously artificial to penetrate the visual field of the film to any great extent, just as the occasional moments of genre homage just sink the story back into an even deeper deceleration once they have passed. One of the key objects that circulates throughout the narrative is a karaoke box, which feels like a cipher for the score itself – energetic, to be sure, but never organically attached to the people it is accompanying. Even during these bursts of energy, Mendoza’s camera swives so spontaneously that it is hard to isolate any one scene from whatever is happening around it, just as the film never settles on one moment for long enough for the audience to feel immersed or oriented. In fact, Ma’Rosa doesn’t really have scenes per se, just momentary points of focus in the murk, still shots where the camera blurs awkwardly in and out of focus, as if Mendoza is jittery with attempting to discern where to put the camera next, before his film finally eludes even him.
Even in an age of digital disorientation, and even in comparison to Mendoza’s earlier films, the austerity of Ma’Rosa is therefore striking, often reminding me of the first films to follow the Dogme ’95 manifesto. Yet Mendoza arguably goes even further in divesting his film of Hollywood convention, since there’s very little in the way of regular framing here, with many of the shots appearing to be completely unprepared in advance. On top of that, Ma’Rosa is deliberately ugly and difficult to look at, especially when night falls and the streets outside the police station are illuminated by sodium lighting. When shot in the right way, sodium lights can imbue digital cinematography with a breathless sense of immanence, but here Mendoza instead focuses on everything grating about this yellow haze when caught on a crude digital device. It’s under these lights that corruptions, bribery and brutality reach their peak banality in the film – business as usual – as Mendoza suggests that corruption is boring above all else, an endless process rather than a source of moral shock.
What makes Ma’Rosa so striking, in its later stages, is that is also acknowledges the way in which police corruption not only provides structure but determines the reality of the city. There’s a marked shift from the first half of the film, which deals with Rosa’s night in jail, to the second half, which deals with her family’s efforts to gather up the bail money in Manila the next day. During this second half, the framing becomes more intentional, the style becomes more manageable, the point of focus becomes clearer, and the soundtrack becomes more naturalistic. In the colloquial sense, the film becomes more “realistic” at this point, and yet it is a realism totally dictated by the demands of the police force, whose corruption forces the family to propel themselves through the city with a new sense of clarity and focus. In effect, the family have to treat themselves as characters in a work of realism, and to mediate the global and local elements of the city with a seamlessness that doesn’t have any genuine connection to reality per se. They are only able to do so, however, because the police have provided them with the necessary incentive, meaning that the corruption of the police takes on a similar function to the purveyor of cinematic realism: to insist upon a particular concept of reality that the characters have no choice but to accept as their own.
Of course, this also contours the first half of the film, since the banality of police corruption is now seen to stem from the way in which it shapes reality. Rather than being a morally shocking break from a perceived reality, police corruption shapes the film’s reality in the first place, taking the amorphous murk of the opening half and moulding it into a more clichéd and stereotypical realism over the second half. In retrospect, then, the opening half akin to neorealism, especially to neorealism’s project of challenging the ways that destructive forces had dictated the terms of realism in the buildup to World War II. Above all, neorealism was preoccupied with the ways shared assumptions of reality had eventually desecrated European cities, turning it into a project of anti-realism that started off with a kind of documentary distaste for received realism, but was quickly forced into ever more flamboyant gestures to avoid that realism simply being internalised by its visions. Something similar occurs here, as Mendoza enacts the process by which the chaos and poverty of Manila is subsumed into a reality principle in which certain assumptions are taken for granted. These assumptions don’t simply involve police corruption, but the role of religion (the second half of the film coincides with the first clear image of a Catholic church), and the role of gender. Like Lino Brocka before him, Mendoza is acutely aware of the extent to which homophobia is used as a way of mediating and stabilizing reality in Manila. Ma’Rosa enacts that process as well, from the liberal use of the word “fag” (apparently dissociated from any clear homosexual meaning) and an encounter between Rosa’s son and an old man who is clearly his lover, but who also ends up providing a significant amount of the money.
Given that the film enacts the way in which police corruption, conservative religion and homophobia shape realism in Manila society, it can’t possibly end by embracing the heightened clarity of the second half. Instead, it ends with Rosa on her way back to the police station, after having been briefly released to come up with the last thousand pesos. She hasn’t been able to acquire it, and her family are waiting back for her at the station, but she still stops, for a moment, to get something to eat from a street vendor. It is in this transitory space, right before Rosa succumbs to the realism of the second act and the demands of the police – the two are the same – that the film closes, although to say that it concludes doesn’t quite make sense either. Instead, Mendoza seems to be challenging the catharsis and closure provided by the various mouthpieces for reality in the film, suspending us back in the space of the opening half, but with a renewed sense of how precious that disorientation actually was, how open to new ways of figuring Filipino reality. In this city, Mendoza suggests, there is no possible resolution, just fleeting pauses in pressure like this one, and any narrative that tries to realistically suggest anything else is indebted to a mode of realism that is even more destructive than it is illuminating. It’s a haunting moment, pregnant enough to encompass the entire film, which is one of the most complete and the most open of Mendoza’s career, and one of the most realistic in its evasion of filmic realism.