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Bread and Roses  

Cast: Pilar Padilla...............Maya
Adrien Brody................Sam
Elpidia Carrillo............Rose
Jack McGee..................Bert
George Lopez................Perez
Alonso Chavez...............Ruben
Monica Rivas................Simona
Frankie Davila..............Luis

Directed by: Ken Loach

Written by: Paul Laverty

Rated R for strong language and brief nudity

Running Time: 1 hour, 50 minutes

"Bread and Roses" tells the story of a fiery young Mexican woman who arrives in Los Angeles as an illegal immigrant, finds work as a janitor in a downtown high rise, is subjected to horrible treatment by the building management, then joins a crusade for unionization. The main question some viewers might have is: why should I care, let alone root for an illegal immigrant who is fighting for higher wages and better working conditions? Such criticisms are indeed warranted, but also overlook the realization that our economy depends on people willing to work for substandard wages.

The politics of British director Ken Loach ("Ladybird Ladybird", "Riff-Raff") are distinctly left-wing, but he's a very perceptive filmmaker who fully understands the complexities and dangers a labor strike could have. For a movie documenting the efforts at gaining rights via unionization, it's somewhat ironic that the most powerful scene is a declaration against the union. More on that later.

The woman's name is Maya (Pilar Padilla) and after fending off "coyotes" who smuggle immigrants for money, she shows up on the doorstep of her older sister, Rosa (Elpidia Carrillo). Rosa works as a janitor; she has two children, a chronically sick husband (Jack McGee) and clings mightily to her paycheck, small as it may be. Initially, Maya finds work at a sleazy bar. She hates the job, and pressures Rosa to find her employment as a janitor in her building. She is eventually hired, although her boss is well aware that she is "illegal" and wastes no time in taking advantage. Maya is required to give up two months salary to her lecherous supervisor just for giving her the job. The hours are long, the pay is ridiculously low, and the workers endure constant verbal attacks.

Then one day, Maya meets an engaging young rebel named Sam (Adrien Brody). Sam is a union organizer and explains that union janitors enjoy higher wages, paid vacations, and medical benefits. To help prove his point, he cites a statistic: In 1982, union janitors in Los Angeles were paid $8.50 per hour. In 1999, non-union janitors were paid $5.75. The workers are convinced.

They join the "Justice for Janitors" campaign, participating in demonstrations, meetings, and marches. The decision does carry a sizeable degree of repercussions. Maya's sudden cognizance of empowerment is undermined by both her sister's resistance to the union as well as her best friend's hesitancy in engaging in demonstrations; he is saving for college, he argues, and doesn't want to jeopardize his future.

It is Rosa's defiance that cuts the deepest. The movie's most powerful moment comes in an argument between Maya and her older sister. Maya unleashes a verbal tirade against Rosa upon learning of her sister's alliance with management. Rosa fires back by coming clean regarding her own methods at providing for her family. She heartbreakingly recounts stories of selling herself to obtain the money needed for food, clothing, and shelter. She even confesses sleeping with the supervisor to help Maya get the job.

The movie is not dumbed down into a management=bad, union=good scenario. Workplace relations are obviously more complicated, as there are unions who are equally corrupt as some forms of management. The screenplay by former human rights lawyer Paul Laverty (who also penned Loach's "My Name Is Joe") is wise in not making the character of Maya into a simple token for the film's message. While her tenacity is the driving force behind the story, it is also her basic human flaw. When their situation becomes grim, she engages in dubious actions that will inevitably come back to haunt her. The film handles the character of Rosa with equal consideration, not undercutting her reasons for remaining loyal to the forces that both feed her family and drain her self-respect. The "good fight" has its share of opponents, many with understandable reasons.

Newcomer Pilar Padilla does a skillful job of conveying Maya's constantly changing perspectives as she grows more aware of the complexities surrounding her situation. As the emotionally drained Rosa, Elpidia Carillo turns in an Oscar worthy performance as a woman whose painful past maintains a permanent grasp on her psyche, constantly influencing her life choices. Adrien Brody ("Liberty Heights", "Summer of Sam") injects his character with a tigerlike tenacity coupled with an infiltrating charm. Sam knows how to fight, but does so while employing a high level of ingenuity.

"Bread and Roses" tells a captivating story not about glamorous individuals who seem right at home lighting up a movie screen, but rather about the kinds of people that come in and out of our lives often without us noticing it. Real people, with real hopes and real concerns. It's a movie that pays homage to individuals in many ways are just like us. Imagine that.

Copyright 2001 Michael Brendan McLarney

Critically Ill

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