Contemporary American films pointedly avoid dealing with the nation’s working poor. To be sure, occasional independent pictures have dealt honestly and movingly with members of the lower classes–Victor Nunez’s “Ruby in Paradise” (1993) and “Ulee’s Gold” (1997) were notable exceptions to the rule, as was Martin Bell’s wrenching “American Heart” (1993)–but for the most part sanitized, formulaic fluff like “Erin Brockovich” is as close as U.S. audiences are likely to get to stories about ordinary, hard-pressed people struggling to survive. That’s one reason why it’s refreshing that British helmer Ken Loach has turned his attention to these shores in this drama about Hispanic immigrants caught up in an attempt to unionize Los Angeles janitorial services. It’s not a perfect film, but it is a welcome change from the assembly-line efforts that the big studios churn out with such depressing regularity.
Of course, Loach is also a politically committed filmmaker–an even greater rarity nowadays. His films aren’t merely portraits of lower-class life, but implicit condemnations of an economic system that perpetuates the plight of those trapped in desperate circumstances. They don’t strive for balanced treatment of both sides, instead drawing angry distinctions between the powerless oppressed and their cruel oppressors. When Loach keeps his message from becoming too strident and melodramatic, his pictures work marvelously–just check out 1990’s “Riff Raff,” 1993’s “Raining Stones” or the recent “My Name Is Joe.” When he’s unrestrainedly preachy or didactic, however, the result suffers; “Land and Freedom,” his 1995 effort dealing with the Spanish Civil War, for example, was well-intentioned but too shrill and solemn to be entirely persuasive.
“Bread and Roses” falls between these two extremes. On the one hand, its Us-Against-Them mentality is awfully broad, the portrait of Sam, the union organizer, almost idolatrous, and the depiction of the corporate cronies who represent capitalist brutality laughably one-note. But it’s nonetheless touching in its treatment of the immigrants, mostly because of the efforts of a talented and involved cast. Pilar Padilla is intense and honest as Maya, the recent arrival (her nerve-wracking border-crossing opens the film), and Elpidia Carrillo equally fine as her older sister Rosa, who proves in her own way both more and less heroic. The supporting players–Alonso Chavez as the shy, ambitious Ruben and Maria Orellana as Berta, who refuses to betray her fellow workers, for instance–are also impressive. So good are the secondary performers and Loach’s expert touch with them that even a scene in which an elderly, confused woman is peremptorily fired for tardiness–which could have been unbearably mawkish–has a certain raw power here.
The more overtly “political” material, on the other hand, comes off less effectively. Sam, played by the gangly Adrien Brody, mugs a bit too much, and his incipient romance with Maya seems an unhappy dramatic contrivance. There’s too much slapsticky humor in the schemes that Sam devises to embarrass the firm that the janitors work for, and the final capitulation of management is depicted in a ridiculously abrupt and offhanded way. The injection of periodic “tragic” elements into the narrative also has an unfortunately convenient feel to it–as though the episodes had been carefully positioned as obligatory counterpoints to the happier moments. And brief appearances by notable faces like William Atherton and Ron Perlman strike one as unnecessary stunts.
Still, even if the Salt-of-the-Earth against Evil Corporate Interests premise of “Bread and Roses” is too broadly stated and its maker’s dramatic calibration off from time to time, the picture nonetheless contains moments of authenticity and power that go far to make up for the deficiencies. And while a cynical and opportunistic age might find its sincere, open-hearted liberalism absurdly old-fashioned at a time when the vaguest suggestion of socialist thought has become anathema and compassion has become a convenient political codeword for governmental inaction, even viewers of completely different political views from Loach’s may find it difficult to remain totally unmoved by it, just as they’re likely to be touched by watching John Ford’s 1940 version of Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” however manipulative and old- fashioned it undoubtedly is. At a time when theatres pack us in with cartoonish tales of impossible adventures and endless rounds of feel-good romantic comedies, it’s comforting to know that there are at least a few filmmakers out there who insist on reminding us that there’s still a lot of human suffering in the world, and hope that their work might be of some modest help in alleviating it. If someone like Loach occasionally stumbles in offering his message, that doesn’t mean the message isn’t worth hearing.