Bread & Roses

Dir: Ken Loach, 2000. Starring: Pilar Padilla, Adrien Brody, Elpidia Carrillo. Cine en Espanol.
Bread & Roses
Once upon a time in Los Angeles, in the 1990s, the biggest labor strife to hit the town in fifty years was the janitor’s service union strike, a group made up of mostly legal and illegal immigrants from south of the border (giving it an especially underdog meaning). The great British “kitchen sink realism” director Ken Loach (Riff-RaffThe Wind That Shakes the Barley) came and made Bread &Roses—a very special film that uses the labor dispute as a backdrop and in doing so made one of the best films in years about both Los Angeles and the immigrant experience.

Looking for work, Maya (Pilar Padilla) sneaks into the country, joining her sister Rosa (Elpidia Carrillo) who is legal (married to an American). Eventually Maya gets work cleaning high-rise office buildings, but every corner she turns there seems to be someone wanting to exploit her and take advantage of her illegal status (both sexually and economically). After being befriended by labor activist Sam Shapiro (Adrien Brody), Maya eventually becomes a leader and helps to organize the union, becoming sort of a Mexican “Norma Rae.” This leads to complications with her sister, who doesn’t want to rock the boat and is already taking great chances boarding her.

Maya and her co-workers are constantly harassed by their ill-tempered boss (played very effectively by comedian George Lopez), but luckily the film is more politically complicated than just a rich-abusing-the-poor story. Though Brody’s Sam has heroic elements, he’s also flawed and his leadership can be sloppy. The union itself is presented as a potentially corrupt force—it’s not quite On the Waterfront but it’s not the good old days of Clifford Odets either. Sam’s union bosses only want to get involved with fights they can win and that won’t cost too much. In an argument with his boss, Sam points out “You worried about the 40 million you gave to the Democrats?” The heroes aren’t the big bosses of the union; it’s the organizer on the street and workers who have the most to lose.

As a filmmaker, Ken Loach is most known for his social realism and obvious left-wing politics, but he has never been a pawn of his ideals. His work usually questions the leaders of the left as well as the right, while sympathizing with the people at the very bottom of the social ladder. Like much overtly political material all of Loach’s films can revert to soap-box moments. Still, it’s balanced by a lot of truth, especially in a scene where Maya confronts her sister who seems to be a little too cozy with “the man,” before Rosa explains the hard cold fact of how she has been forced to survive all these years. This was Padilla’s first film and she had to learn English for much of her dialog, while Carrillo was a veteran of Mexican Television. Both are excellent in the film. Brody is also strong, showing a lot of groovy charisma just as he was beginning to emerge as an offbeat leading man. Loach gets solid work from the entire cast, made up of both amateur and pro actors, another trait of all his films.

From Charlie Chaplin’s The Immigrant, to The Godfather Part II, and even to some extent the Okies of The Grapes of Wrath, the immigrant’s search for the American Dream has constantly been a reliable subject on the big screen. And, as it has happened, so often the non-American filmmaker often understands it best. Loach’s work, though usually acclaimed, has never reached the same-size audience or won as many awards as his fellow “kitchen sink” Brit director Mike Leigh (Secrets & LiesNaked) who is less overtly political and is more concerned with man’s relationship to man as opposed to man’s relationship to society. But then again, Leigh hasn’t yet come to shoot in America yet, either. Here’s to hoping that Loach will continue to come back with his realistic approach to style and show America who we are and what we are really made of.

Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Sep 28, 2011 5:14pm
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