Friday May 11, 2001
It is somehow appropriate that "Bread and Roses," a film depicting the struggle of predominantly Latino Los Angeles janitors to form a union, was directed by a foreigner. After all, who is better equipped to make such a film than England's Ken Loach, who has spent his entire distinguished career making social, economic and political issues personal and involving rather than preachy?
Indeed, that this is Loach's first film made in the U.S.--but outside the mainstream Hollywood industry, to be sure--is undeniably a plus, heightening Loach's identification with his largely immigrant characters.
"Bread and Roses" begins in a rush of jagged images as a group of people hasten through a thicket of foliage to cross a remote spot along the border between Mexico and the U.S. Two men swiftly herd the illegal immigrants into a van, depositing them in a spot in downtown Los Angeles, where friends and relatives eagerly await them.
Among the group is Maya (Pilar Padilla, a terrific newcomer), a young woman who is dismayed that the men won't release her to her older sister Rosa (Elpidia Carrillo), who has been unable to meet the full price of Maya's journey.
One of the men wins Maya in a toss of the coin with his partner, preparing to rape her in a seedy downtown hotel room. But Maya demonstrates right off the luck and pluck that will serve her well when she escapes and makes her way to Rosa's home on the edge of downtown and Rosa gets her a job working as a cleaner in a high-rise where she works.
Maya is as eager to prove herself as she is appalled at the working conditions. Her sister and her new co-workers live in terror of their boss, Perez (George Lopez), as villainous and tyrannical as a sweatshop boss at the turn of the last century. The workers are underpaid and have no insurance or job security. Perez fires people on a whim, with older workers especially vulnerable. Many are clearly undocumented, most have families either here or south of the border (or both) and therefore have too much to lose to dare stand up to the abusiveness of Perez, an employee of a large agency for janitorial workers.
Consequently, when labor organizer-lawyer Sam Shapiro (Adrien Brody) manages to elude the security guards, with an unhesitating though puzzled assist from Maya, he does not elicit enthusiasm from her co-workers when he finally manages to give them his spiel. They understandably feel they have everything to lose and cannot believe they have a chance at winning. Maya, however, is just naive and idealistic enough to respond to his message, and she shares with him a fearless, even reckless spirit.
Ever so gradually, the two of them are able to get their co-workers to stage a demonstration boldly orchestrated by Sam to embarrass the high-profile law firm that has a 50% ownership of the high-rise.
Written by Paul Laverty with broad--sometimes almost too broad--strokes of melodrama and comedy, "Bread and Roses" is imaginatively plotted to intertwine the personal and the political and is well sustained by Loach's vitality and passion. There's much that Maya doesn't know about Rosa, who has a husband (Jack McGee) increasingly endangered by diabetes but without insurance and two children. The film builds to an unexpected and stunning moment of truth between the sisters, which reveals Carrillo, a notable presence in "Salvador" and "The Border," as a formidable actress.
It's perfectly natural that the sweet-natured, gangly Sam and the earthy Maya would be drawn to each other, just as Maya and Ruben (Alonso Chavez), a handsome co-worker with a law school scholarship almost within reach, would be mutually attracted. The strength of this vibrant, stirring film is that it doesn't get sidetracked by trying to encompass a love story, and furthermore dares to end on a note that is decidedly bittersweet.
"Bread and Roses" hits home when one of Maya's co-workers observes, "When we put on uniforms, we become invisible." It's a truth as uncomfortable as it is undeniable.
Bread and Roses, 2001. R, for strong language and brief nudity. A Lions Gate Films release. Director Ken Loach. Producer Rebecca O'Brien. Executive producer Ulrich Felsberg. Screenplay by Paul Laverty. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd. Editor Jonathan Morris. Music George Fento. Production designer Martin Johnson. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes. Pilar Padilla as Maya. Adrien Brody as Sam Shapiro. Elpidia Carrillo as Rosa. George Lopez as Perez. Alonso Chavez as Ruben. Jack McGee as Bert.