“Bread and Roses” is a minor piece of agitprop drama from Ken Loach that is remarkable only for its timeliness — a Los Angeles janitors’ strike very like the one depicted in the film took place only last month. Otherwise, while the picture’s activist stance vis-a-vis society’s underdogs may play well with some specialized audiences (as it would with American Latino viewers if an enterprising distrib could figure out how to market a Euro “art” film to them), its politics and dramatic line are familiar and far from convincing. Lacking the feeling and humor of the director’s best work, film faces a spotty future both critically and commercially.
Loach ventured to L.A. with his usual production team and made the picture in his normal way on his own terms, with no Hollywood involvement per se. Based on the long-standing “Justice for Janitors” campaign that has sought better pay and conditions for the “invisible” class of (mostly) Hispanic workers who clean office buildings, Paul Laverty’s shallow script suddenly seems enormously prescient in light of the recent, widely publicized strike in L.A., which only a couple of weeks ago was settled to the benefit of janitors, who were previously making as little as $ 6 per hour with no benefits.
It was no doubt the huge disparity between American corporate wealth and the country’s bottom dwellers that attracted the attention of the vet English director, whose work is as consistently political as that of any filmmaker in the West. His heart, in this case, may be in the right place, but he hasn’t found a way to dramatize the subject with the power and insight of which he’s repeatedly proven capable in the past.
Maya (Pilar Padilla) is a young Mexican who is reunited in L.A. with her older sister Rosa (Elpidia Carrillo) and latter’s family after slipping over the border from Tijuana — and enduring a strange episode in which one of her transporters tries to force her into sex. Courtesy of Rosa, Maya immediately finds jobs, first as a barmaid (which she leaves due to sexual harassment from customers), then as a downtown janitor, where the only initial drawback is her boss’ insistence on a month’s salary as “commission.”
With the arrival on the scene of bushy-haired and goateed young lawyer Sam Shapiro (Adrien Brody), pic quickly becomes a primer on workers’ rights and union agitation tactics to achieve them. Sam is like a ’60s hippie, radical in message and style, full of statistics regarding the evils of the “oppressor” and gleeful at any opportunity to embarrass authority.
Conception of this role reflects a goodly share of the film’s overall problems, in that it’s one-dimensional, reflexive and quite glib. In a contempo context, Sam’s behavior is often silly and reckless (he loves nothing more than assaulting the “enemy” on its own turf), but Loach wouldn’t think of casting a critical, or even ironic, eye at a man of such high principles or “correct” politics. Although the issue at the root of the janitors’ protest — low pay — is legitimate, the larger political context and ramifications aren’t tackled at all. For all the film’s ranting about workers’ rights, it never broaches the issue of exactly what rights it supposes workers have, or ought to have, in a country they’ve entered illegally.
Loach and Laverty’s political simplifications are also evident in their use of Rosa’s husband’s illness as a means to attack the American health care system , and in their cartoonish portrayal of Yank establishment figures, setting them up as stuffy or buffoonish sitting ducks just to be shot down by the lively working class in ideologically charged confrontations.
The only time the film surges to full life is in a confrontation between the two sisters. Feeling that Rosa has sold out the workers’ cause, Maya indignantly confronts her, only to have the tables turned as Rosa furiously reveals the sacrifices she’s made for years, of which Maya has been completely unaware. Electrifying scene is charged with a humanity and emotion that are notably absent elsewhere in the picture, including in Maya’s lame would-be romances with Sam and an earnest Latino law student.
Except in the explosive sister scene, in which Carrillo, in particular, shines, thesping is one-note. Padilla’s Maya is surprisingly bold and feisty for someone working illegally in a foreign country, and it’s hard to retain much sympathy for a character who compounds her narrow view of what’s due her by committing, late in the film, a brazen robbery, even if for altruistic purposes.
Brody seems to be having fun as the lefty lawyer who clearly feels that the end fully justifies his every irreverent goof, but the character has no past and no human subtext.
Despite the dramatic shortcomings, pic boasts typically good craftsmanship from Loach and his production team, notably lenser Barry Ackroyd.