Equal parts documentarian and melodramatist of the disenfranchised, Ken Loach protests the political and socioeconomic forces behind personal calamity by diving headlong and handheld into the fray. In both their activist content and assaultive verité immediacy, his films are quintessentially of the moment. The only movie in the director’s 35-year career to be filmed and set in the States, Bread and Roses at once preaches to the choir and overreaches its grasp, but it couldn’t be timelier. Loach’s union battle cry, inspired by the Justice for Janitors movement that began in Los Angeles in 1988, arrives on the heels of the first-time contract proposal for Orange County, California, custodians in January and the more recent living-wage campaign for janitors and dining-hall workers at Harvard.
Bread and Roses hits the ground running (in the midst of a harrowing emigration through dense woods on the edge of Mexico), stops for breath in L.A., and then almost rears back. A thuggish pair of border hustlers bring Maya (amazing first-time actress Pilar Padilla) and her fellow travelers to their drop-off station, where Maya’s older sister, Rosa (Elpidia Carrillo), is waiting. But Rosa doesn’t have the money she promised, and the van whisks the terrified Maya off to points unknown while the cabrones flip a coin for who gets to rape her. Her rather miraculous escape establishes the tense yet cheerful Maya as everything a union-movie heroine needs to be (resourceful, ribald, plucky), but Loach aids her flight via highly selective framing and editing cheats, then crassly celebrates it with a triumphant blast of mariachi.
The film never regains its balance after this initial, discomfiting breach of faith. Maya moves in with hard-bitten Rosa, takes a job alongside her cleaning office buildings with a team of mostly Latino immigrants, and initiates hesitant romances with both Ruben (Alonso Chavez), a gentle, focused fellow custodian who’s about to secure a law school scholarship, and Sam (Adrien Brody, in fine-tuned Method mode), a high-strung, sweet-natured organizer.
Maya’s crash course in labor studies is certainly thorough. Loach deftly outlines the workers’ pragmatic skepticism about creating a union (documentation requirements being a foremost concern), the exasperating struggles to communicate among the custodians, organizers, and bosses (hindered further by language barriers), and the massive roadblock to workers’ rights known as subcontracting. For the most part, Brody’s Sam is a character, not a liberal-audience stand-in (as Robert Carlyle valiantly attempted to be in Loach’s woeful Carla’s Song), and the director has some piquant fun sending Brody—a potential striker himself—to sabotage a Hollywood bash populated by fellow SAG members Tim Roth and Benicio Del Toro (in don’t-blink cameos).
But the opposition—from the owners of the union-targeted buildings to the obnoxious white-collar employees who take no notice of the folks who wax their floors and empty their trash—is uniformly vile or stupid. Or both, in the case of Perez (George Lopez), the lecherous custodial manager who fires older employees at random and has to be told what coerce means. And when a fully fleshed character (as opposed to a cutout conflict provider) betrays the cause, she’s immediately supplied with an unfathomable backstory to explain away her choice. Littered with canned speeches, brimming with screaming and statistics (usually at the same time), Bread and Roses is a genuine consciousness-raiser, but it’s less a social-realist narrative than a high-volume rally. Which might be exactly what the director intended.
A Protestant married to a Catholic in County Wexford, Sheila (Orla Brady) is another self-invented freedom fighter, though in the 1950s Ireland of A Love Divided, she’s less interested in broadscale action than the right to make marital decisions unmediated by the papacy. When her husband, Sean (Liam Cunningham), sides with the village priest and insists that their older daughter attend the local Catholic school, Sheila flees town with their kids, terrified not so much of the pitfalls of a Roman education as her husband’s uncharacteristic submission to an outsider. Based on a true story, Sydney Macartney’s analysis of the sectarian violence that erupted in Sheila’s frantic wake is impeded by overemphatic camerawork and a meandering POV (exacerbated by thick dollops of voice-over), while Stuart Hepburn’s script virtually ignores the two young children dragged all over the U.K. in the name of “what’s best for the girls.” But Brady and Cunningham share a volatile, symbiotic chemistry, sketching in elegant shorthand the rhythms of a lusty, combative marriage—though not one so mercurial that the schism that follows ever seems quite believable.