Bread and Roses
2001, R, 105 min. Directed by Ken Loach. Starring George Lopez, Elpidia Carrillo, Adrien Brody, Pilar Padilla.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., June 1, 2001
Over the course of his 30-plus-years-long career, British film director Ken Loach has carved out a unique and brutally consistent style of socially committed filmmaking. His protagonists are always society's outsiders and underdogs; his films are testimonials to the ongoing economic, class, and cultural struggles. Using his camera a bit like a soapbox, Loach's films tend to wear their politics on their sleeves. Yet, within his circumscribed social realism, Loach's films nevertheless locate wonderfully real characters and heartfelt storylines that create rich narrative universes. His stories feel honest and his characters' predicaments are always absorbing. And at all times he keeps the emphasis on the characters by downplaying camera technique, eschewing showy directorial moves in favor of keeping our attention focused on the characters and their situations. Bread and Roses is Loach's first movie set in the United States, although screenwriter Paul Laverty has penned two previous Loach films, Carla's Song and My Name Is Joe. The story is situated within the illegal Latino immigrant community of Los Angeles, although it opens with some wild, hand-held camerawork that evokes the frenzied confusion and terror as a group of Mexican workers cross the border to America. Among this group is Maya (Padilla), whose sister Rosa (Carrillo) is short the agreed fee for Maya's escorts due to her husband's mounting medical bills. Maya is held captive by her border guides in exchange for sex. We quickly learn that Maya, despite belonging to the invisible underbelly of American society, is not cut out to be one of society's victims. After a while in Los Angeles, she gains a job with her sister as a janitor in a big L.A. office building. But soon she is one of the first workers in the building to hear the call of the Janitors for Justice union organizer Sam (Brody). It would be easy to pigeonhole this as Norma Rae en L.A., and Padilla is at least as ingratiating and as much of a guy magnet as Sally Field was in that movie. The aesthetics, however, would be all wrong, and the comparison would certainly never allow for Bread and Roses' incredible climactic scene of raw emotional honesty between the two sisters (a scene that's almost worth all the others in the movie combined). The film's performances are exceptionally good and make up, in part, for some of the story's inherent naïveté. The film glosses over the righteousness of some of the union's more guerrilla-style actions, and allows for an acquiescence by management that comes so swiftly that it could only occur in fiction. Bread and Roses presents a slice of life that has hardly made a scratch on American celluloid. With any luck, that scratch will help generate a real itch.