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Review: Patrick Wang's 'A Bread Factory' is a richly absorbing portrait of a community theater at a crossroads

Review: Patrick Wang's 'A Bread Factory' is a richly absorbing portrait of a community theater at a crossroads
Tyne Daly, left, and Elisabeth Henry in the movie "A Bread Factory, Part Two." (In the Family LLC)

Halfway through “A Bread Factory,” Patrick Wang’s wondrously moving, thoughtful and inventive new movie, Dorothea (Tyne Daly), who runs a community arts center in the fictional town of Checkford, N.Y., takes a call from someone requesting a ticket to an upcoming performance. Confirming that the caller indeed wants to see “Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny,” Dorothea notes, “I just wanted to be sure you knew what you were in for.”

There’s relief in her voice, perhaps informed by years of watching less savvy patrons storm out of her theater in disgust, confusion or boredom. The Bread Factory, so named for being housed in a reconverted bakery, is in the business of exhibiting what some might uncharitably term artworks of antiquity, which can mean such works as a series of Howard Hawks films or, in this case, a production of a 1930s Brecht-Weill opera. The public’s growing disregard for this work is one of the worrying themes of the movie, which laments a society in which hype, sensation and corporate-branded mediocrity increasingly set the cultural agenda.

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Since most of us, despite our better efforts, are susceptible to that agenda and the complacency it encourages, it’s only fair to let you know what you’re in for if you see “A Bread Factory,” which unfolds in two parts, runs four hours and earns every minute. It offers further confirmation, after “In the Family” and “The Grief of Others” (a 2015 festival premiere that will make its belated appearance in theaters next week), that Wang is an unusually gifted and criminally undersung talent in independent filmmaking.

His latest is a warm and prickly humanist triumph that features no movie stars, disperses its attention across a large ensemble and feels meticulously handcrafted in every respect. The amicable spirits of Robert Altman, Jacques Rivette and Edward Yang hover over the talky, leisurely and casually intricate story, as does the equally loquacious influence of Richard Linklater, evident in the movie’s free-flowing conversational rhythms and determined embrace of small-town eccentricity.

The two films, which can be seen separately but work best as a double bill, together examine a series of economic and larger existential threats that assail the Bread Factory, which is partially subsidized by the local school board. Chief among those threats is a slick, better-funded Chinese conceptual-art duo called May Ray whose pseudo-edgy, utterly vapid performances receive the brunt of the movie’s contempt. (May is played by Janet Hsieh, Ray by George Young.)

The first picture, “Part One: For the Sake of Gold,” follows Dorothea as she fights a school budget proposal that would put the Bread Factory out of business. Her closest ally is her longtime professional and romantic partner, Greta (Elisabeth Henry), herself a seasoned stage actress. Also on their side is Jan (Glynnis O’Connor), a dogged reporter who begins investigating May Ray’s shady corporate backers, and a city council member, Mavis (Nan-Lyn Nelson), whom they can count on to vote in their favor.

But while the budget battle provides a measure of suspense, “Part One” is more meaningfully structured around the Bread Factory’s upcoming production of “Hecuba,” based on a fresh English translation by a local scholar, Elsa (Nana Visitor). And Wang, weaving deftly in and out of his ensemble and revealing the characters’ interconnected relationships in piecemeal fashion, shows how the bonds of community and activism intersect, not always conveniently, with those of love and family.

Elsa’s husband, a school union rep named Jason (James Marsters), turns out to be sleeping with Mavis, whose own husband, Sam (Milton Craig Nealy), runs a café that serves as a popular local hangout. The affair is unwittingly echoed, much more innocently, by the feelings that develop between Jason’s teenage son, Max (Zachary Sayle), and Mavis’ daughter, Julie (Erica Durham).

Max works as an intern at Jan’s newspaper, while Julie, an aspiring actress, has taken a role in “Hecuba.” She and Greta will share the stage with a veteran actor named Sir Walter (Brian Murray, who died in August), who in turn is nursing a decades-old grudge against a local critic, Jean-Marc (Philip Kerr), revealed in one of many scenes that show a barbed but generous appreciation for every step in the process of making, delivering and consuming a work of art.

But “A Bread Factory” doesn’t go out of its way to manufacture intrigue, and its most moving moments — as well as its frequently tart, tetchy humor — arise from a spirit of observation rather than contrivance. Its chief concern is the collaborative and often counter-intuitive energies that go into a stage performance, and Wang, shooting on grainy 16-millimeter film with the cinematographer Frank Barrera, draws the viewer in with unhurried long takes that subliminally re-create the unmediated quality of live theater.

The camera is content to sit for minutes on end as Dorothea, Greta and Mavis strategize before a board meeting, or when a visiting filmmaker (a typically sharp-tongued Janeane Garofalo) delivers a send-up of post-screening Q&As that briefly lifts the film into its own comic stratosphere. But Wang shows equal patience when Sir Walter takes the stage and proceeds to recite a scene from “Hecuba” — and the viewer, perhaps inclined to sift eagerly for thematic connections between Euripides and the movie itself, would do well to sit back and savor the moment for its own sake.

Elsa (Nana Visitor), left, and Jason (James Marsters) in a scene from "A Bread Factory, Part Two."
Elsa (Nana Visitor), left, and Jason (James Marsters) in a scene from "A Bread Factory, Part Two." (In the Family LLC)

The pleasures of theatrical performance become more pronounced, playful and complex in “Part Two: Walk With Me a While,” which, as its title hints, takes a meandering but fascinatingly surreal turn. The budgetary threat has been temporarily held at bay in “Part One,” but as “Part Two” suggests, May Ray is merely an outward manifestation of a broader and more insidious cultural threat, an ethos of laziness and self-interest that has all but seeped into the atmosphere.

The boundaries between art and life, always porous to begin with, are now miraculously traversed. In one sequence, the patrons at Sam’s café burst into a synchronized tap-dance routine without breaking eye contact with their phones. In another, Dorothea is visited by real-estate agents who take the form of an a cappella quartet, musically imploring her to sell a barn on her property that she’s using to store theater sets. The rapacious forces of capitalism and technology, it seems, have become good at co-opting the mechanisms of art to their advantage.

But Wang, striking a tone both elegiac and good-humored, critiques this shift in the atmosphere without entirely denouncing it. His splendidly individuated characters, anchored by Daly as the theater’s most tireless defender, wrestle in distinct and unpredictable ways with the changes that are upon them. “A Bread Factory” itself acknowledges that such evolution is unavoidable and in some respects necessary, even as it maintains unswerving allegiance to — and beautifully embodies — the kind of art that threatens to be dismissed in its wake.

In one of the film’s finest sequences, Dorothea and Greta run through a few lines from “Hecuba” with a new actress, Teresa (an excellent Jessica Pimentel), who has replaced Julie in the cast. It’s a lovely example of the alchemy that takes place when a few actors connect in a scene, and it’s also an expression of faith in the notion that a new generation of artists and patrons will always find fresh meaning in the classics of old. Provided, of course, that a director is skilled and attentive enough to tease it out, whether on a stage or behind a movie camera.

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‘A Bread Factory, Part One: For the Sake of Gold’

Not rated

Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes

Playing: Laemmle’s Monica Film Center, Santa Monica

‘A Bread Factory, Part Two: Walk With Me a While’

Not rated

Running time: 2 hours

Playing: Laemmle’s Monica Film Center, Santa Monica

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