I've been aware of Ken Loach for a while now, his rep, his social conscience. But I remember I saw one of his "social realist" flicks many moons ago - I don't even remember which one it was - but I found myself thinking about pretty girls, good food and poker.
But I took a chance on Bread & Roses, (the title a nod to the women-led textile worker strike of 1912 in Lawrence, Kansas) mostly because of its subject matter; janitorial workers, mostly Latino, slaving away in one of those dreadful LA towers that can be described as soul-draining.
Now, movies about Latino immigrants have been done, most notably Greg Nava's El Norte (1983). But where I felt Nava dipped much too easily and overly much into melodrama,* I come away from "socially conscious films" with the same opinion I do of "socially conscious poetry." I find both teeth grinding.
Bread & Roses has moments of this, but the saving grace is its actors and director, who somehow manage to inject their movie with a thrust worth seeing. Loach is reputed for his work with non-actors, placing them in situations where they are often unaware of the arc and zenith of a scene by not providing the full script, doling it out in dribbles just before the scene to be shot.
Star Pilar Padilla is good, George Lopez, as a pinchi pendejo of a boss, and Adrien Brody as the token white boy activist who attempts to save mudpeeps from the remorseless capitalist machine, (and becomes a target of romance, of course) are all commendable. There are star turns via cameos in a party scene. (Benecio Del Toro, Chris Penn, Tim Roth, Ron Perlman...)
But the real light is Elipidia Carillo, whose beauty and natural acting immediately caught my eye.
From here, Roger Ebert:
The best scene in "Bread and Roses" argues against Sam, Maya and the union. It is a searing speech by Rosa, delivered by Carrillo with such force and shaming truth that it could not have been denied the Oscar--if the academy voters in their well-cleaned buildings ever saw movies like this. Rosa slices through Maya's idealism with hard truths...
I couldn't agree more. She's worth the price of admission.
When I was a college freshman, I marveled at the big dorms and the march of the ants every morning to campus. On my way down one time, the hordes were flowing by a bank of ivy. I spotted a figure in a large-brimmed hat bent over, weeding. I couldn't stop looking at him and he then stood up and looked right at me. He then had the most surprised look on his face, as if he couldn't believe someone who wasn't a peasant, was seeing him. Still walking, albeit slower, I glanced at the passing throng, who were completely oblivious to the invisible man. He was old, thin-wiry-muscled, Asian and had that cocoa brown leather skin one only gets from working in the sun. On those terms, he looked like my grandpa, a farmer.
There's a scene in Bread & Roses where the fellow worker who takes a shine to Maya is showing her how to do something. Some white people step right past them as if they weren't there, and he remarks to Maya that their uniforms have an extraordinary power - the power of invisibility.
* Though El Norte's cinematographer, James Glennon, is underrated; there's a scene lit by candles, reminiscent of Kubrick's Barry Lyndon's famous gambling scene. Kubrick, as legend has it, called up Zeiss and had them make ultra-fast f4 lenses as I recall so that he could shoot the scene lit only by the available candlelight. Years later, I would buy my first really serious SLR, a Contax, based in large part because it used Zeiss lenses. I still have it.