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Bread and Roses

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All-Reviews.com Movie Review: Bread and Roses

Starring: Adrien Brody, Pilar Padilla
Director: Ken Loach
Rated: R
RunTime: 110 Minutes
Release Date: June 2001
Genre: Drama


*Also starring: Benicio Del Toro, Jack McGee, Elpidia Carrillo, George Lopez, Alonso Chavez



Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

Both politically and in the way director Ken Loach has executed "Bread and Roses," this pro-union gem is my kind of film. I think we have a predilection for liking the pictures that relate strongly to our own beliefs and even more to our own life's experiences. In my case, I was one of the founders of the United Federation of Teachers back in 1962, when professional educators throughout the country were virtually without a strong organization to represent them and, in fact, did not even have contracts with the employers. My fellow organizers and I had to overcome the resistance of the public to the idea that so-called white-collar professionals would want to join a LABOR union but even worse, we had to surmount the objections of the majority of elementary school teachers, largely women earning second incomes from their families, who were afraid to risk everything in return for the chance to obtain well-deserved increases in benefit and pay.

Similar issues are raised in his first U.S.-based work by the British filmmaker, Ken Loach, who best known work is perhaps "My Name is Joe"--about a recovering alcoholic (Peter Mullan) who is trying to earn a decent living in his native Glasgow, Scotland. "My Name is Joe," incidentally, mixes romance with his battles far more realistically than Michael Bay was able to do in the far more expensive "Pearl Harbor." Loach is nothing if not a friend of working class men and women: he walks a thin line between propaganda and art to advance the cause. "Bread and Roses," for example, can serve not only to wake the audience up to plight of many workers in basic drudge jobs but the film does so in an absorbing manner, keeping the audience captivated and charmed and in one case shaken by a realistic and organically explored confrontation of a pair of sisters.

The exciting opening puts us behind photographer Barry Ackroyd's hand-held camera as he captures a frantic flight of Mexicans across the Tijuana border into California where a bus takes them to L.A. When the newly-arrived Maya (Pilar Padilla) cannot come up with the money to pay the smugglers, she barely escapes the net of one scurvy guy's attempt to take the money out in some very personal services, and in doing so she shows us that she's a young woman of uncommonly independent and feisty spirit. She joins a cadre of non-union janitors in an L.A. building and is approached by Sam Shapiro (Adrien Brody), a grass-roots organizer for service workers. When the janitor's macho supervisor Perez (George Lopez) hears of the goings-on he takes drastic action against the workers in his building--who are already terrified because some are undocumented aliens while all are dependent on their meager $5.75 an hour (no benefits) and are fearful of risking their jobs.

The story of a spirited wage-slave and of a determined organizer has been told before: in Martin Ritt's "Norma Rae" (1979), which highlights Sally Field in an Oscar-winning performance as a southern textile worker won over by a northern union organizer (Ron Liebman). And in Gregory Nava's "El Norte" (1983)--for my money the best movie ever about Mexicans who are smuggled into the States and later struggle to make a life here--we in the audience have our hearts torn asunder in a picture that uses heightened reality to move our senses. "Bread and Roses" stands out, however, as a film more down-to-earth, less commercial and less glitzy. Still, there's no problem seeing that while Loach takes his story from actual events in a union movement in California during the 1990s, "Bread and Roses" is not a documentary but a fleshed-out drama of city workers as exploited as anyone working the lettuce fields of California as migrants.

The one priceless scene is a sobering one for the pure idealists in the audience. Watch the confrontation between Maya and her sister Rosa (Elpidia Carrillo)--a clash that points out that life is so often not black and white but more a progression of grays. Pilar Padilla in her film debut turns in an amazing performance, particularly astonishing considering that at first she knew practically no English, was put through a crash course in San Francisco, and speaks better than most of my American-born high-school students.

Copyright 2001 Harvey Karten

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