Ma’ Rosa depicts the Philippines as a nation of hagglers, constantly negotiating deals within an informal economy. The film centers on Rosa (Jaclyn Jose), who runs a small sari-sari store in a poor neighborhood. But she and her husband (Julio Diaz) also sell drugs on the side. The action kicks off when the police raid their home. The couple is taken to the police station, but they are processed or thrown into jail. They are instead given an offer: their freedom in exchange for two hundred thousand pesos. Rosa and her family have to scramble to find a way to pay off that sum.
The film basically plays out as a series of transactions. The very first scene has Rosa being given candy in lieu of change at the grocery store, the cashier claiming that she didn’t have any coins. The film continues to paint a portrait of everyday Filipino life composed of implicit debts, casual negotiations, and a slew of other small deals that take place in an impoverished area. And then Rosa gets arrested, and the deals get bigger. Now dealing with the law, the stakes get much bigger. And though she already nothing to give the police, she’s expected to give much more.
The second half of the film shifts the focus away from Rosa and on to three of her kids, who are given the responsibility of gathering the cash necessary to spring their parents. And again, they all cajole and negotiate and try everything they can to get the best deal possible within a pretty terrible situation. And there is something really intelligent in the way the film breaks down the economic obligations within this milieu. There is this sense that no deal is to be taken at face value, that everything within is context can be haggled up or down, out of a strange sense of community and familial obligation.
It’s a smart insight, really, but in making that point, the film doesn’t really do enough to tell a story. Its characters largely remain ciphers. Rosa, though a familiar figure in our society, isn’t really defined enough to make much of an impression. Her family members are even thinner, and the policemen are basically boogeymen. As the movie drifts focus, not enough time is really given over the understanding the humans at the core of this situation. Stuff happens, but the movie doesn’t provide many reasons to invest in the outcome.
And so the movie doesn’t make the viewer feel much in the long run. It is somewhat satisfying on an intellectual level, but it’s kind of difficult to feel anything for this story, which just kind of happens. Visually, the film doesn’t stray very far from the rest of Mendoza’s filmography. It’s appropriately dark and grimy and kind of lo-fi. Jaclyn Jose, who won the best actress award at this year’s Cannes film festival, certainly deserves whatever praise she receives. A very solid ensemble cast backs her up. Though no one else in this cast is really given the chance to elevate the characters, there isn’t really a weak link among them.
Ma’ Rosa is a very composed film, with each of its scenes contributing to a greater point about Filipino society. It is a well-acted portrait of the strange economy that emerges from a society rife with poverty and corruption. But it feels a little hollow underneath that composure, a little lacking in dramatic stakes. It is a film that is easy enough to admire, but a little difficult to love. It feels a bit like the movie isn’t really risking anything, even as it plumbs the depths of our darkness.