Bread and Roses

             Those who work in office buildings in large cities may not be aware
     of the cleaning staff that empties the trash, wipes down the desks and
     generally keeps the place looking spiffy. If you're like me and work odd
     hours, then you may have met established a nodding acquaintance with
     the cleaning crew. Chances are, the people hired to do the work are
     immigrants from South America or Mexico who work the job as a means
     to support themselves and their families. These are the people who are
     at the center of
BREAD AND ROSES, a moderately successful drama that
     explores one group of workers attempt at unionization and the toll that
     takes on the already fragile lives they live.

             In a career spanning nearly four decades, Kenneth Loach, who
     has been dubbed the "dean of leftist movie makers" by
The New York Times,
     has gifted audiences with a series of thought-provoking, politically-
     charged motion pictures that are often built around working-class
     protagonists. Some five years ago, he hooked up with screenwriter
     Paul Laverty and the duo crafted
CARLA'S SONG, which detailed the
     relationship between a Scottish bus driver and a Nicaraguan refugee,
     followed by the searing portrait of a recovering alcoholic that was
MY NAME IS JOE. In this, their third collaboration, they have chosen
     to tackle the tricky prospect of labor issues. It's not that there
     aren't dramatic possibilities in such a story, the major flaw is the setting.
     Instead of the industrial areas of Scotland or England, these British
     filmmakers have opted to set their tale in -- of all places -- Los Angeles.
     Although it is inspired by actual events,
     the texture of place that has informed much of Loach's best work.

             The film's evocative title hearkens back to a strike by
     immigrant female textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in
     1912, which later came to be known as the "Bread and Roses Strike."
     (Indeed, a later poem honoring those women written by James
     Oppenheim quoted the slogan, although in reality the phrase
     predated 1912 and was reputedly coined by suffragette Rose
     Schneidermann, who claimed to have said in speeches that women
     "not only wanted labor laws and bread, we wanted roses too.")
     In any event, Laverty and Loach attempt to draw parallels between
     the 1912 incident and their story which is set on the opposite coast
     some eighty-seven years later.

BREAD AND ROSES opens with a harrowing sequence of a group
     of Mexicans crossing the border illegally and arriving in Los Angeles
     to be sold to family members. Using a handheld camera, Loach thrusts
     the audience into this nightmare as Maya (fetching newcomer Pilar
     Padilla) joins with the group. Her sister Rosa (the superb Elpidia
     Carrillo) hasn't quite raised enough money and the transporters cart
     Maya off to a rundown apartment. For her part, Maya is resourceful
     enough to escape and makes her way to Rosa's home. Soon, she
     joins her sister working on a cleaning crew for a large building in
     downtown Los Angeles. On her first night, she encounters Sam
     (Adrien Brody, Restaurant), a labor leader who is trying to convince
     the cleaners to join the janitors' union. The battle lines are formed
     as Maya decides to try to rally her co-workers much to the dismay
     of some who don't want to rock the boat. Management, in the form
     of Perez (George Lopez), obviously is against this and he is willing
     to fire anyone who crosses him. But his fascistic tendencies only
     inflame some of the workers and before long, there are demonstrations
     and recriminations, including the presence of an unlikely traitor.

             Laverty and Loach are to be commended for attempting to bring
     dignity and humanity to the workers; one says quite pointedly, "when
     we put on our uniforms, we become invisible." But the actual
     execution unfortunately doesn't carry the full dramatic weight
     the movie makers believe.
BREAD AND ROSES tries too hard to be
     both a social document, a love story (Maya is drawn to both Sam
     and a co-worker Ruben, played by Alonso Chavez who harbors
     plans to attend college), and a family drama. The various plot
     strands aren't knitted together too well, partly the fault of the
     schematic screenplay, partly due to Loach's direction (he seems
     particularly at sea in how to make full use of the city of Los Angeles)
     and partly because of the actors. The love triangle aspect, in
     particular, is a bit unsuccessful as it seems that the filmmakers
     cannot decide if Maya merely has a crush on Sam or not. Padilla
     works hard to make the character feisty and she clearly has
     feelings for Sam, but Brody's interpretation of the role is
     rather eccentric. Sam seems only focused on the goal of unionization,
     so Maya's attempts to jump-start a relationship fall flat, particularly
     when she has such an appealing and earnest alternative suitor.

             The best performance in the film is delivered by Carrillo who
     takes what could be a somewhat cliched character and breathes life
     into her. Rosa is an overworked mother, with an ill husband and a
     somewhat spoiled younger sister yet she struggles to keep her
     resentments and disappointments in life to herself. When they do
     spill out -- in the film's most poignant sequence -- the actress
     transcends the triteness. She allows the audience to see the
     wounded woman inside and the result is heartbreaking and sublime.
     It's a typical Loachian moment and it elevates
     to the level of the director's better works. Unfortunately, that
     moment is a rare one. However well intentioned, the film doesn't
     quite fulfill its promise. Still, I hope it will make anyone who
     works in an office building stop for a minute and consider the
     hardworking individuals who spend their evenings cleaning. Those
     men and women are worthy of a tribute and, in that vein, the film
     does succeed.
                     Rating:                 C+
                     MPAA Rating:         R for strong language and brief nudity
                     Running time:        110 mins.
© 2007 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.