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(2000) (Pilar Padilla, Adrien Brody) (R)

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Drama: An illegal Mexican immigrant finds herself caught up in an organized labor movement after she takes a janitorial job in a non-union building.
Maya (PILAR PADILLA) is an illegal Mexican immigrant who's been smuggled over the Tijuana border thanks to the efforts of her sister, Rosa (ELPIDIA CARRILLO), who reluctantly gets her a job working with her as a janitor cleaning an office building in Los Angeles. There, she meets other janitors who are pretty much in the same boat as her, along with Ruben (ALONSO CHAVEZ) who wants to go to law school but needs to earn enough money to qualify for a partial scholarship.

She also meets Sam Shapiro (ADRIEN BRODY), a local pro-union activist who's trying to get the building's janitors to join his Janitors For Justice campaign and become unionized. His actions don't sit well with Mr. Perez (GEORGE LOPEZ), their mean and condescending boss, or Rosa who's concerned about the ramifications of such an organized labor movement. Nevertheless, and particularly after seeing how Perez treats her coworkers, Maya forges ahead with Sam, hoping to improve her and the others' working conditions.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
Since all drama relies on conflict as its narrative fuel, any given filmmaker could do worse than having organized labor movement material as the subject of his or her film. After all, such stories inherently have diametrically opposed parties who want different things - one wants better working conditions or benefits while the other wants to maintain the status quo - along with others who either support or don't like what's occurring.

Such stories are also usually constructed in a David versus Goliath fashion where the "little guy" faces an uphill battle, long shot odds, and some serious repercussions should their actions and desires prove to be less than victorious.

Not surprisingly, a fair number of films have used that setup and subject matter as fodder for their basic plots or accompanying subplots. One need only think of pictures such as "Norma Rae," "Matewan," and the more recent "Billy Elliot" as examples where viewers root for the underdog to win, and even other workplace films such as "Working Girl," "9 To 5" and "Office Space" that use the underlying employee versus management theme as the gist for their plots.

One can now add director Ken Loach's "Bread and Roses" to that group. The tale of an illegal Mexican immigrant who joins a union movement after facing low pay, few benefits and a mean boss while working as an L.A. janitor, the film - fictionalized from real life events -- has all of the requisite elements in place to be an engaging and even riveting drama. While rather one-sided in its approach and a bit too simplistic in its overall nature and structure, the story works, mostly due to the basic good vs. bad plot construction.

It's too bad, however, that Loach ("My Name is Joe," "Family Life") opted to make everything so black and white rather than gray. Sure, the protagonist - decently portrayed by Pilar Padilla (who makes her feature film debut) - is illegally present in the U.S. and does commit a crime late in the game to help out a friend. Yet, the antagonists - some business owners and the janitors' boss - played with credible, if one-dimensional villainy by George Lopez ("Fatal Instinct," "Ski Patrol") - are too stereotypically bad, mean and/or evil to make the film as interesting or complex as it might have been.

While those who've been on the receiving end of such bad workplace treatment will obviously identify and sympathize with the victims as presented here, the film would have been far more interesting had everything been bathed more in a more nebulous shade of gray. That way, the viewer would have to think more - rather than having an opinion force fed to them - about which side, if either, was right or wrong.

It wouldn't have taken much to blur those black and white strata - such as giving the boss some likable traits and/or at least some potentially valid reasons for his behavior and actions - but Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty ("My Name is Joe," "Carla's Song") pretty much go full board in just one direction and doesn't let up.

Beyond the black and white issue, Loach also misses out by not creating enough obstacles in the way of the protagonist's goal and making the ones that exist too simplistic, and thus less dramatically effective, in nature. Since Maya is an illegal immigrant who was smuggled across the Mexican/U.S. border - in what are the film's most engrossing moments - one would imagine she'd be worried about being discovered and deported.

Although Loach partially shows - in a mostly stereotypical fashion -- what life is like for such immigrants, there's little palatable tension or fear for viewers to feel regarding the protagonist and her growing involvement in the rallying cause. Simply put, we watch and understand what she's going through, but don't feel for her like we should (and it's surprising that her boss doesn't blackmail her and the others with threats of turning them in).

In "Norma Rae," Sally Field's somewhat similar character grew as a person as the union movement story progressed and that's what endeared her to the audience and made the film that much more powerful. Here, that doesn't occur as Loach is only concerned with the movement and seems intent on using the protagonist merely as a pawn in his overall game plan. The result is that most everything - save for the opening of the film and a heated and eye-opening sisterly confrontation late in the offerings- is played very flat and thus doesn't engage the viewer.

As far as the rest of the performances are concerned, Adrien Brody ("Summer of Sam," "Liberty Heights") is good, if a bit of a caricature as a union organizer lifted straight from the 1960s, Elpidia Carrillo ("Salvador," "Predator") is solid as Maya's naysayer sister and gets the film's best speech late in the game, and Alonso Chavez (making his debut) is decent as the one janitor who hopes and seems to have a bright future. Many of the other performers seem to be newcomers, a point that simultaneously makes the film seem more real but also somewhat amateurish.

While the film is relatively easy enough to watch, its straightforward and simplistic nature prevents it from being as involving and engrossing as it might have been. The result is a picture without much passion, a much-needed commodity for a story like this to be entertaining while "educational." Accordingly, "Bread and Roses" rates as just a 5.5 out of 10.

Reviewed May 7, 2001 / Posted June 1, 2001

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