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With: Pilar Padilla, Adrien Brody, Elpidia Carrillo, Jack McGee, George Lopez, Alonso Chavez, Monica Rivas, Frankie Davila
Written by: Paul Laverty
Directed by: Ken Loach
MPAA Rating: R for strong language and brief nudity
Language: Spanish, English with English subtitles
Running Time: 110
Date: 05/10/2000

Bread and Roses (2001)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

You Missed a Spot...

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

British director Ken Loach's excellent Land and Freedom (1995), one particular scene sneaks up on you with its sudden electricity. An Englishman who has volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War in 1936 finds himself in the midst of a fiery debate about the collectivization of land. We begin listening to the many sides of the actual discussion and don't even realize how passionate and intimate the scene really is until several minutes have gone by.

Now Loach has delivered a new film called Bread and Roses. In it, he seems to want to try the same trick again, but he attempts it over and over, and so slowly that he lets his magician's hand show. It becomes obvious preaching, a soapbox movie along the lines of Traffic that puts message above characters.

Newcomer Pilar Padilla stars as Maya, a Mexican immigrant who arrives in L.A., following in the footsteps of her sister Rosa (Elpidia Carrillo). Rosa can't come up with the money to pay off the smugglers and bring Maya safely in to the U.S., so Maya tricks an officer with the promise of sex and escapes. Rosa gets Maya a job as a janitor in a large office building, and everything seems to go well until Maya helps a scruffy man escape the building's security guards. The man, named Sam (Adrien Brody), returns and begins to plant the seeds of unionization among the janitors.

From this point on, the film divides itself into two kinds of scenes, some involving the personal lives of the characters -- which Loach does better than almost anyone else working today -- and grandstanding speeches about unionizing and the dangers and benefits thereof.

What's worse is that these two kinds of scenes seriously clash. When one sister obtains a gun and steals money from a small shop, the scene itself plays out logically and interestingly. But with such little time devoted to character development, it turns into an amateurish plot device, a seed for a later melodramatic development. For some reason, Loach plays out other scenes with slapstick comedy, such as Sam escaping the guards and Maya tricking the officer, which do not fit. In addition, he tries to shoehorn a half-baked romance between Sam and Maya into the mix, when he obviously doesn't have enough time to make it work properly.

The same goes for the political scenes. Sam takes great pains to warn the workers about what a huge and bloody fight they have ahead of them, and we expect the film to deliver as much. But after all the silly stuff, the unionization feels like a battle too easily won in order to conveniently fit the format of a 110-minute movie.

Still, many scenes play brilliantly by themselves, such as a powerful argument between the two sisters in which Rosa reveals to the naïve Maya just how low she's had to sink to get by in the so-called promised land. This scene shows Loach at his best, using the harshness of real life in an emotionally charged situation between human characters. He pulled off this heady mix successfully to a much greater extent in the excellent My Name Is Joe (1998).

In other words, certain scenes of Bread and Roses will be among the finest projected on movie screens this year. But the entire blend just doesn't gel. Instead of one hand helping another, they insist on arm-wrestling. And no one comes out a winner.

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