DENNIS SCHWARTZ 
IS THERE ANY GOOD 
IN SAYING 
EVERYTHING ABOUT A MOVIE?

 
BREAD AND ROSES (director: Ken Loach; screenwriter: Paul Laverty; cinematographer: Barry Ackoyd; editor: Jonathan Morris; music: George Fenton; cast: Pilar Padilla (Maya), Adrian Brody (Sam Shapiro), Elpidia Carrillo (Rosa), George Lopez (Perez), Jack McGee (Bert), Monica Rivas (Simona), Frankie Davila (Luis), Beverly Reynolds (Ella), Alonso Chavez (Ruben), Maria Orellana (Berta),  Mayron Payes (Ben); Runtime: 105; Lions Gate Films; 2000-UK/SP/FR/IT)

 
"At times "Bread and Roses" looks disingenuous..."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

It's good we have filmmaker Ken Loach ("Riff-Raff"/"My Name Is Joe") around as someone who is still committed to making idealistic political films in this age of political cynicism, where most moviemakers are only making Hollywood formula and special effects films. There are few others taking up the liberal cause as presented so openly as here. In "Bread and Roses" the Marxist Loach asks you to look the other way at illegals who are crossing the border and he asks you to sympathize with an illegal who robs a gas station in a non-violent robbery, as the film is viewed through the eyes of the Mexican janitors. This is the Britisher' first venture onto the American political turf and his glee for political battle parallels his inexperience of the American political system, which at times helps and at other times hampers his efforts. At times "Bread and Roses" looks disingenuous and makes LA look programmed in an unreal way, and at other times it looks refreshingly naive and optimistic.

The film takes its title from the 1912 labor dispute in Lawrence, Mass., where many of the strikers were immigrant women who were in a longtime dispute with their bosses demanding better wages and working conditions, and unfurled the banner with the slogan: "Bread but with roses, too."

The film opens as the heroine, the spunky Maya (Padilla), is trafficked illegally across the border to LA, but when her sister Rosa (Carrillo) can't come up with enough of the dough for the payoff the 'coyotes' kidnap Maya and attempt to force her to have sex with them. But she outwits them and flees to Rosa's place. Rosa's gringo husband, Bert, can't work because of an illness, which puts a strain on their two children family.

Rosa is seen as a tough-minded person capable of taking care of herself and her family, and she finds a way to get Maya employed as a janitor in the cleaning outfit she works for in a hi-rise building used by Hollywood actors and their agents. But Maya has to give the nasty supervisor, Perez (Lopez), a kickback from her lowly paying job--where she will earn as a non-union janitor $5.75 an hour and have no health plan.

Sam Shapiro (Brody) is a young, energetic, and dedicated union organizer prone to wearing a red T-shirt that says 'Justice for Janitors,' who is working to organize a non-union building of janitors. He meets Maya when he sneaks into her office building to get a list of the workers but is spotted by management, and she mischievously helps him escape without knowing who he is. Loach will show how the gringo Sam has to ease the workers' fears and answer their doubts about losing their jobs for taking a risk by just talking to him, as he has to gain their trust in order to organize them.

In Rosa's kitchen, Sam is thrown out by Rosa as she declares I believe in nada. He tries again by secretly meeting with all the workers in the storage room of the office building after-hours, as they argue among themselves and consider the pros and cons of union membership. These scenes were didactic, as the primary purpose of this film is to teach. The political agenda of Loach is not very entertaining, so the playful Maya is left to carry on the diversions that make this film entertaining (which she capably does). She believes in Sam, but firstly falls romantically for Ruben--a cleaner with plans for college. But, again, is intrigued by the bouncy and funny Sam and begins a romance with him.

In the meantime the bosses stupidly fire a worker for not snitching, which angers most of the workers and makes most of them ready to join a union. This gives Sam a chance to use his daring but effective confrontational tactics against the building owner, which alarms his establishment minded union bosses.

The film's most dramatic moment comes after Rosa betrayed her fellow unskilled workers and the naive Maya. Maya, in her self-righteous new union militant stance, confronts her older sister. This results in one of the great 'I had to be a whore to put food on the table' orations of all time, as Rosa also lays out what she had to do to get Maya the job at Angel Cleaning Services and how she hates the world for making her a whore and keeping her a whore even when she has a family.

Those workers covered are on the bottom of the ladder and seem faceless to most Americans; Loach does a nice job of giving them character and real feelings. Loach sides with the unions, but it's OK with me to take such a stand; especially, when he makes such a powerful case for them. But he does this at the expense of what wasn't said; such as, the question of the illegals being allowed to break the law with impunity. He also does not get to management's side in the labor conflict, for a more balanced view.

"Bread and Roses" makes you think about the illegals and their plight and all the political implications involved, and has not only a bitter-sweet ending but an ambiguous one. What it failed to do was to make the emotional lives of Maya and Sam more interesting. The one convincing emotional moment was the conflict between the sisters, and for that alone the film was worth the price of admission. It is too bad that Loach couldn't bring out other emotional moments in this worthy film, as it suffered at times from being too politically melodramatic. It also has one curious aspect about it which makes it feel like I was watching a foreign-language film, as it moves back and forth between Spanish and English--using subtitles when necessary.

REVIEWED ON 12/4/2001     GRADE: B

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"

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