Starring: Pilar Padilla, Adrien Brody, Elpidia Carrillo, Jack McGee, Alonso Chavez, George Lopez… there are also several actor cameos in a party scene.
Written by: Paul Laverty
Directed by: Ken Loach
Released: May 10, 2000 (Cannes Film Festival)
Overall score: 7/10
Brody performance score: 8/10
What it’s about
Maya (Pilar Padilla) is a young woman who arrives in Los Angeles from Mexico. Her sister Rosa (Elpidia Carrillo) already lives in the area with her husband (Jack McGee) and children. Rosa has pulled some strings (to say the least) to provide for her family and to get her sister into the country. Rosa is a janitor at a large office building in the city and soon gets Maya a job there, as well.
To say the work environment is unpleasant would be a vast understatement. They get about half the pay of other janitors in the city, with no benefits. There is also virtually no job security, as their power hungry bully of a boss (a scenery-chewing George Lopez) fires people on a whim.
Enter Sam Shapiro (Adrien Brody).
You know that archetype people call the “manic pixie dream girl” (the type of character Zooey Deschanel tends to portray)? Well, Sam is sort of a manic pixie white knight. He is comic relief, subject of crushes, and fierce ally all in one. Sam strikes me as the type of role a woman might play in a male-driven story. It’s nice to see a male character like this in a largely female-driven story.
Our main character, Maya, is so charmed by Sam (and he by her) that she is the first one to hear him out about getting the janitors organized in a union. No one else wants to rock the boat (initially), for fear of losing what little they have. Rosa is the most resistant. Maya is young, new on the job, and still has fire in her. She hasn’t been oppressed by the horrid work environment as long as the others, so her spirit is far from broken.
What I Liked
I enjoyed the balance of comedy and drama Bread & Roses has. It’s a serious subject matter and yet, there are many light moments that are quite funny. Most provided by Sam (Brody). Speaking of Sam – he is one of the more lovable characters Brody has ever played. He is a joy to watch.
Sam is a bit of the “white person here to help minorities” stereotype we see in those inner-city high school movies (like Dangerous Minds, of instance). However, white allies are often the only ones those in power will listen to, so it is sadly realistic in this story of fighting for workers’ rights.
Elpidia Carrillo was remarkable in the role of the long-suffering Rosa. She’s feisty and stubborn, yet there is an underlying sadness and loss of hope in her that is heartbreaking. There is an especially poignant scene near the end of the film, where Maya confronts Rosa. The two have an argument that evolves into a tear-filled series of confessions. It is devastating to watch. Both actresses play the scene out perfectly.
What I Didn’t Like
Maya does something near the end of the film that is, I feel, out of character and somewhat randomly tossed into the story. The consequences of her actions also play out in a kind of sloppy way. It was essentially a plot device to tie up the story. I think the idea was: after what Rosa revealed to her, Maya realizes sometimes helping those around you requires self-sacrifice. A scene of Maya contemplating her options before going through with it may have been helpful. It really is kind of a nitpick on my part, because rushed endings are kind of a pet peeve of mine.
Also, Rosa’s husband Bert (McGee) has diabetes (I’m assuming Type 1, judging by the complications). They play this up to an almost melodramatic degree, in order to drive home just how much Rosa needs health care. I appreciate why it’s done, but it is kind of distracting. If Bert were a more central character, it would hold more weight for the viewer; however, he has so little screen time that it kind of falls flat.
Bread & Roses is definitely worth watching. It’s an important story, and one I thank Brody for being in, because it made me consider things that may have flown under my radar otherwise. For fans of Brody, Padilla or Carrillo, this movie will be all the more enjoyable. They all do great work here.