One of the most aggressively political filmmakers at work in world cinema, British director Ken Loach has been making movies with a keen social conscience since his debut with 1967's Poor Cow. His outstanding body of work has included such pictures as Riff-Raff and the award-winning Land and Freedom. In his current work, Bread and Roses, Loach shifts focus from the struggles of the European working class to the plight of contemporary American immigrants. A mixture of El Norte and Norma Rae, Bread and Roses is a memorable, affecting work.
Written by Paul Laverty, Bread and Roses is the story of a pretty and bracingly spunky young Latina named Maya (Pilar Padilla) who crosses the border from Mexico to live with the Los Angeles family of her sister Rosa (Elpidia Carrillo). Eventually, Maya lands a job alongside Rosa at a janitorial company that cleans the offices each night in a huge L.A. skyscraper.
Maya's experience, of course, stands for that of so many people in her circumstances. She is illegal and thus vulnerable to those who are strangers to pity. Maya promises, "I will work hard," and she's as good as her word. But her job pays milium wage and comes with no benefits of any kind, no health insurance, no paid vacation days, no sick leave accrual. And if that's not bad enough, Perez (George Lopez), the janitorial boss in her building, is a modern-day Simon Legree. He agrees to hire Maya only after negotiating a kickback of her first month's salary. In his relations to all his employees, Perez is routinely abusive, occasionally firing someone for a minor infraction so as to terrorize the others into meek compliance. Maya is not so easily manipulated as her co-workers, however, and she responds to the recruiting invitations of a union organizer named Sam (Adrien Brody). Eventually, she convinces many of her janitorial colleagues to join in an organizing effort.
Here Loach and Laverty nicely examine the competing motivations of those Maya and Sam need to convince if they are to achieve a decent wage and the kinds of minimal benefits most Americans take for granted. Most of the employees are Hispanic, but other ethnic groups are represented as well. A Russian woman is afraid of joining a union because she believes they are corrupt and won't really represent the interests of those they are supposed to serve. A handsome young man named Ruben (Alonso Chavez) has been assiduously saving his money to qualify for a university scholarship that requires a 20-percent match. Should he go on strike or be fired for union activity, his dreams could go up in smoke. Saddest of all, Maya's sister Rosa is simply defeated. Rosa tells Maya in denouncing the union, "We just have to recognize and accept that they are stronger than we are."
The filmmakers also nicely concede that the union is not a solution to all the problems that these people face, that the union itself is made up of entirely fallible human beings. In fact, Sam's union superiors think he is wasting his time trying to organize the workers in Maya's building.
Throughout, the picture sustains an important tension concerning Sam's behavior. He's an Anglo plying his trade in a largely Hispanic world. He's irresponsible at times. And his showboating, confrontational style remains a debatable, arguably counter-productive strategy. A key question persists about what Sam will do if the union bosses pull the plug. Will Sam protect his own income, or will he stand beside those he has encouraged to risk what little they have? In short, the union preaches an idealism that it doesn't, perhaps can't, practice without qualifications. To survive, it must succeed. And in that pragmatic determination it is different less in kind than in degree from the forces it would strive to topple.
Ken Loach has always had to work with small budgets and often with unknown and little-trained actors. The result in Bread and Roses is the occasionally clunky scene when the players are simply not up to the demands of their roles. But such moments are few and limited to those in minor parts. The principals are all terrific. The decision to include a romantic connection between Sam and Maya is a mistake that actually diminishes, rather than heightens, narrative tension in that it makes the story feel more conventional and stagey.
On the whole, though, as almost always with Loach's work, Bread and Roses is a film of power and insight. A person living on milium wage, one man points out, spends three-fourths of what he earns on rent. As anyone who has ever traveled abroad knows from first-hand experience, America is such a rich country, we disgrace ourselves by not affording all those in our midst a real chance for a decent life.