A scene from 'Bread & Roses'
Courtesy Photo
** stars (In Spanish and English with subtitles)
110 minutes | Rated: R
Opened: Friday, June 1, 2001
Directed by Ken Loach

Starring Pilar Padilla, Elpidia Carrillo, Adrien Brody, Jack McGee, George Lopez


If you like your movies delivered by directors preaching from soap boxes, watching this movie on the small screen won't hurt it at all.

   VIDEO RELEASE: 11.27.2001


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Selfish, virtueless heroine not worth rooting for in dogmatic pic about unionizing illegal immigrant labor

By Rob Blackwelder

"Bread and Roses" isn't a movie so much as a political soapbox made of celluloid, so if you lean to the right on unionization and immigrant's rights, you might as well stop reading right here.

Personally, I tend to lean left. But no so far left that I'm ready to embrace this movie's selfish, ungrateful main character just because she makes minimum wage without benefits as a janitor, one month after sneaking over the border.

Maya (Pillar Padilla) is living in Los Angeles on the good graces of her older sister Rosa (Elpidia Carrillo), who helped her get into the country and got her a job cleaning offices in a downtown skyscraper. And even though generous, sacrificial Rosa -- who supports an injured husband and a handful of kids on her meager salary at the same job -- specifically asks her to not rock the boat at work, Maya gets involved with a union organizer named Sam (Adrien Brody) and it isn't long before she's helping lead marches and protests against the building's owners, tenants and contractors.

Director Ken Loach ("My Name Is Joe") does an adequate job of building a moving story around his cast of bottom-rung workers, who are ignored by the rich white folks whose offices they clean while being exploited, mistreated and financially gouged by their employers. He has a fine cast too. Padilla, Brody and Carrillo lend their characters depth and nuance that implies they've had entire lives before we come across them in this story.

But the propaganda is just relentless. Everybody involved with the union is practically wearing a halo in "Bread and Roses." All the illegal immigrants are portrayed as noble and put-down by The Man. And except for Sam and Rosa's husband, every white character is a soulless, shallow, money-grubbing creep played by a bad actor.

Granted, the film's portrayal of the intimidation tactics used to discourage organization probably aren't far off base, but god forbid any mention be made of the way unions shut out workers who won't join or the way they can, given power, become at least as corrupt as the corporations they combat.

But it's really not the dogma of this movie that bothered me. Its fundamental flaw is expecting the audience to sympathize with Maya. She shows her sister no gratitude or respect for helping her get into the U.S., or for feeding her and giving her a place to live, or for putting up with her selfish attitude.

She seems to think she's entitled to having a better life handed to her just because she made it over the border and survived some indignity and abuse at the hands of the smugglers that led the way. And when her unionization efforts get a college-bound co-worker fired before he'd paid his tuition, she seems to think robbery is a legitimate way to make it up to him -- but only because she feels guilty.

Who cares how the guy who owns the gas station feels when she locks him in a bathroom and empties his cash register, right? Who cares that he probably got the crap beaten out of him after she tells a customer who interrupts her heist that she locked him in there when he flashed her?

Give me a heroine who isn't so egocentric and utterly worthless, and perhaps I'll sit and listen to you grouse about inequity and injustice against illegal immigrants. But give me a girl like Maya and my knee-jerk reaction is to root for her to get caught and sent back to Mexico.

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