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Bread and Roses (2001)

Courtesy of Sixteen Films

Main image of Bread and Roses (2001)
35mm, 110 minutes, colour
DirectorKen Loach
Production CompanyParallax Pictures
ProducerRebecca O'Brien
ScreenplayPaul Laverty
CinematographyBarry Ackroyd
EditorJonathan Morris
MusicGeorge Fenton

Cast: Pilar Padilla (Maya); Adrien Brody (Sam); Elpidia Carrillo (Rosa); Jack McGee (Bert); Monica Rivas (Simona)

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Maya crosses the border from Tijuana to Los Angeles to join her sister, Rosa. Maya manages to get a job as a janitor but is horrified by the exploitation she experiences. She joins forces with a young American lawyer, Sam Shapiro, to campaign for justice and better pay for janitors.

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Ken Loach is sometimes accused of polemic, of giving a one-sided view of the conflicts he depicts. In fact his films are generally far more nuanced than the accusation implies; but if any scene gives the lie to that view, it's the encounter between two sisters at the heart of Bread and Roses. Maya, the younger and more impulsive, has become involved in a campaign to unionise the largely Hispanic cleaning force in the downtown LA building where she works. When the management find out what's happening, they sack her along with most of her fellow-workers. Maya realises that it was her older sister, Rosa - with whom she lives - who informed on them. Storming into the house, she screams "Traitor!" at her sister; in response, Rosa tells her exactly why she did what she did, in a searing speech that leaves Maya in tears.

The scene is so intense that it almost unbalances the rest of the film. But Bread and Roses has an energy and a vitality that carries it through any narrative unevenness. Right from the early scene in which Maya (Pilar Padilla, making an impressive screen debut) resourcefully escapes the clutches of a lecherous people-smuggler it's evident that Loach, while never soft-pedalling the hardships faced by illegal immigrants in the US, is leavening his message with a welcome admixture of humour.

The story is inspired by the Justice for Janitors strike of 1990, when the LA establishment of high-powered execs was confronted by the unnoticed, scandalously underpaid workforce who cleaned their plush offices. Loach uses this real-life incident as backstory, allowing union official Sam (a likeably mischievous performance from Adrien Brody) to contrast the improved wages, benefits and security enjoyed by the unionised workers with the raw deal endured by Maya and her fellow cleaners.

Here and there the story becomes a touch schematic. Maya is predictably torn between two men - Sam, sparky and charismatic, and the more serious-minded cleaner Luis, who aspires to university - and Maya's reckless act to fund Luis's entrance fee doesn't quite convince. But against this are the exuberance of the activist scenes, especially where Sam and the cleaners (complete with noisy equipment) invade a posh office party, to the alarm of the assembled stars, agents and corporate lawyers. Roach even persuaded some Hollywood A-listers - including Ron Perlman and Benicio del Toro - to lend their presence to this scene, much to their credit.

Philip Kemp

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Video Clips
Production stills
Carla's Song (1996)
Ackroyd, Barry (1954-)
Fenton, George (1950-)
Laverty, Paul (1957-)
Loach, Ken (1936-)
Morris, Jonathan (1949-)
O'Brien, Rebecca (1957-)
Smith, Roger
Ken Loach: Feature Films