‘Ma’ Rosa’ Cannes Review: It’s Ugly, and That’s the Point

Director Brillante Mendoza uses neorealist techniques to provoke outrage and explore corruption in Manila’s poorest slums

You have to give “Ma’ Rosa” points for this: Filipino director Brillante Mendoza’s neorealist indictment of police corruption looks unlike any other film playing in Cannes’ Official Competition. It’s just that what sets the film apart is its visual ugliness.

“Ma’ Rosa” certainly follows all the tenets of the neorealist movement. It is shot with portable, inexpensive equipment on location in Manila’s poorest neighborhoods. It follows the working poor into intractable knot of public corruption meant to provoke outrage and indict all levels of society.

But where those early Italian predecessors were shot on black & white film (limited means or not, there was only one game in town), Mendoza shoots in cheap, choppy digital. Between the two, only one of those approaches looks good blown up on the big screen.

And the initial burst of aesthetic disturbance that greets you in “Ma’ Rosa” runs counter to the game Mendoza sets up. He tells the story of married pair of shopkeepers who supplement their meager income selling stepped-on meth. When the corrupt local police take them in, the overly onerous bail money (all which goes directly into the police officers’ pockets, of course) proves so steep as to send their children spiraling into further debt, destitution and criminal activity. In other words, in “Ma’ Rosa” the ugliness is supposed to build.

In Mendoza’s hands, working from a screenplay by Troy Espiritu, the beats play out less as a story and more as process. The visuals (and you know my views on them) at least lend the film the veneer of a fly-on-the-wall documentary, and that sense is pushed further forward by the near absence of character moments or superfluous dialogue. Things move at clipped pace from the chaos of the city streets to the controlled menace of the police lock-up, and then further still into a deeper pit of crap.

Interestingly, the rudimentary visual approach is counterbalanced by rather sophisticated sound design. The Salle Debussy in Cannes’ technically impeccable Palais du Cinema proved an ideal stage for the layered mix of city sounds and jangly, discordant thrums. The score, by Teresa Barrozo, is closer in character to the unsettling works of mid-century avant-garde composers than anything heard in films from Italian socialists of the same era.

Ultimately, the muted response that greeted “Ma’ Rosa” might have less to do with any of the film’s inherent qualities, and more to do with where it was programmed. Mendoza sets out to provoke outrage and he does just that, but the film’s loftiest goals and highest highs never quite hit the peaks expected from Official Competition contenders.

This is the big league we’re talking about, and “Ma’ Rosa” just doesn’t feel ready to play.

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