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Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2002
Because no one can live on bread alone
By KAORI SHOJI
The 20th century might have been dubbed "the century of idiocy," but we can at least be consoled by the existence of filmmaker Ken Loach who has, throughout his career, fearlessly confronted facets of that idiocy.
This is a lot more difficult than it sounds as Loach is in an industry where profit (or "success") is explicitly linked to the amount of entertainment a director provides.
Raw human idiocy in the form of discrimination, impotent bureaucratic systems, class segregation and class warfare have formed the fabric of Loach movies. Such themes have helped build his reputation and earned him respect, if not big-scale projects or box-office bonanzas.
But a century from now, if the medium of film is remembered at all, then surely it will be remembered because of directors like Ken Loach.
In recent years, Loach has shifted the stage of his stories from his native England to Central America, ferreting out social injustices and contradictions, pointing out the small pockets of hope. His next stop turned out to be the U.S.
"Bread and Roses" is Loach's first Hollywood co-production, set in Los Angeles to boot. Typical of Loach, though, he takes us through an L.A. we've never seen in movies: the world of Hispanic janitors and their grassroots crusade for fair treatment.
The screenplay (written by Paul Laverty) was inspired by the crowds of Spanish-speaking women who wait for the downtown bus at 2 in the morning. Clutching lunch bags, these women were on their way to graveyard janitorial shifts in luxury office buildings. Laverty discovered that many of them were illegal immigrants paid the minimum wage or less by management companies that kept them in check with threats of deportation. Without benefits or prospects of a raise, they worked double and triple shifts to support their families. Few complained.
Justice for Janitors is an ongoing movement to educate immigrant workers about their rights, urge them to unionize and demand better working conditions. "Bread and Roses" walks us through this movement: the people involved and how they do battle.
The methods taken to promote the janitors' plight include everything from rallies and marches to crashing the parties of building owners and bigwig corporate tenants. But the hardest part is convincing the workers themselves to form a united front: Often they are too frightened of the risks involved.
Loach deploys real-life Justice for Janitors activist Roscio Saenz in the cast alongside actor Adrian Brody, who plays her boss Sam. Together they explain and instruct and push the workers to demand basic rights. Real janitors also feature, and the scenes of meetings held after hours in the janitors' hall spark with genuine anger, spirit and hope.
Against the backdrop of the political message, Loach zeroes in on individual lives and their daily struggles, the power play within families and between lovers. This is most apparent in the relationship between chief protagonist Maya (a stunning debut performance by Pilar Padilla) and her older sister Rosa (Elpidia Carrillo).
Maya comes to L.A. from Mexico via a "coyote" (clandestine guides who bring immigrants across the border), then moves in with Rosa's family. Rosa's husband is a diabetic about to lose his eyesight and she's forced to work 18-hour days to get him medical treatment. Maya senses her sister's hardships, but she's still young enough to believe that good times are just around the corner. She begs for a janitorial job at Rosa's company, run by nightmare manager Perez (George Lopez), and in her plucky way refuses to come under his thumb. Rosa, on the other hand, keeps her head down and does the work. The last thing she wants is trouble.
The sisters' conflict peaks during a gut-wrenching scene when Rosa angrily tells Maya all the sacrifices she has made since childhood to support their mother and the rest of the family. Her long years of prostitution in Tijuana, followed by double janitorial shifts in L.A., and now she must deal with Perez's sexual advances, just to keep little sis out of trouble and support her husband. Maya is horrified by this revelation and covers her ears. Rosa's awful, irreparable pain lies like a wound between the sisters, seemingly too deep to heal. It is only when Maya shows herself capable of receiving a few blows herself that love and family ties become strengthened once more.
The title is taken from the slogan of a Massachusetts labor demonstration held in 1912. Ten thousand immigrant workers marched for the right to have both bread and roses: to have sustenance for the body and also some means to nourish their souls. Almost a century later, they're still having to fight for that same right, attesting indeed to the idiocy of our age.