Dir: Ken Loach. UK. 2000. 110 mins.
Prod Co: Parallax. Int'l sales: The Sales Company. Prod: Rebecca O'Brien. Exec prod: Ulrich Felsberg. Scr: Paul Laverty. DoP: Barry Ackroyd. Prod des: Martin Johnson. Ed: Jonathan Morris. Mus: George Fenton. Main cast: Pilar Padilla, Elpidia Carrillo, Adrien Brody, George Lopez, Alonso Chavez.
The locale may have changed but the commitment to challenging social drama remains unwavering in Ken Loach's first North American venture. Set in Los Angeles and inspired by the continuing Justice For Janitors union struggles, the latest collaboration between Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty strikes at the very heart of the American Dream. Packed with damning evidence, it systematically exposes a land where money rules, compassion is a luxury and the most vulnerable of people face epic battles to secure their small share of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Even though Loach and Laverty tease out the humour and the humanity in their story, the film by its very nature is a tough proposition commercially. The last Loach-Laverty venture My Name Is Joe had a sharp focus, a warm heart and an award-winning performance from Peter Mullan to help it reach a wider audience. Etching telling moments from the class struggle, Bread And Roses is less obviously inviting.
One woman's experience of America provides the backdrop to a story exploring the tough realities of life among the poorest paid workers in a city more commonly depicted as a by-word for glamour and affluence. Pilar Padilla's fiery Maya arrives in Los Angeles as an illegal Mexican immigrant. Sister Rosa (Carrillo) secures her a job as a cleaner in one of the city's numerous high-rise office blocks. The hours are long, the pay is paltry and the conditions are intolerable but most workers are either too frightened or too desperate to raise their voice in protest.
Unorthodox union activist Sam (Brody) is the one who convinces Maya and her colleagues to organise and fight for their rights with a campaign of direct action that develops into a bitterly fought contest with painful consequences for them all.
Trading in heroes and villains on one level, Bread And Roses is astute enough to view everyone as victims of a society founded and sustained on the inequities of a dog-eat-dog philosophy. Blue collar workers are all but invisible to the rich, uncaring Los Angelinos they service but even within the ranks of the janitors personal considerations can easily outweigh the communal good. In a stand-out scene, an emotional Rosa confronts Maya's somewhat naive idealism with a devastating account of the personal price she has paid as the family's stoical bread winner.
There are a number of equally stirring moments as the workers take their case to the streets of Los Angeles and also disrupt a swanky movie world soiree populated by the likes of Tim Roth, Sam West and William Atherton. Generally, Loach and Laverty are content to let the truth of the matter speak for itself. They refuse to coddle the viewer with easy answers or tug unceremoniously at the emotions. The result is an absorbing, thought-provoking dramatisation of the eternal fight to overcome injustice that's very admirable virtues may leave it preaching to the converted.