With conspicuous severity, Ken Loach has made a picture about exploited Mexican immigrant workers cleaning offices in downtown Los Angeles in his first film in the United States.
Adrien Brody plays Sam, the middle-class Anglo union organiser who incites them to action, and falls in love with one: Maya (Pilar Padilla) the younger sister of Rosa (Elpidia Carrillo) the careworn woman who has risked everything to get Maya across the Rio Grande.
The result is a thumpingly unsubtle movie, a Lehrstück, in which Loach appears insufficiently at home in his new American location to include any of his habitual light touches of humour and nuance.
In fact, it is almost as if Loach is consciously repudiating these bourgeois irrelevances, in the service of reminding us of the scandal of LA making itself wealthy by gouging the urban peasant class, and exploiting the wetbacks who do the dirty jobs.
This is megaphone cinema. But like a megaphone, it is intermittently capable of crude power and effectiveness. Loach highlights the grisly caste system which is a metonym of corporate prosperity: the immigrant office cleaners who are made to feel invisible, who do not show up on the white-collar feelgood radar.
Bread and Roses is often as two-dimensional as a placard, or a billboard. That is disappointing in so experienced a director. In his other movies, there has been no contradiction between subtlety and political commitment. But this cannot entirely cancel its sense of moral and political seriousness, and its powerful performances from Padilla and Carrillo.
Bread and Roses (110 mins, 15)
Directed by Ken Loach; starring Pilar Padilla, Elpidia Carrillo, Adrien Brody
Ken Loach is a romantic socialist, in love with the movement's distant past, disgusted by its present, unhappy about its future. He recently resigned from the Labour Party, but while he probably had a sneaking regard for Michael Foot, it's doubtful whether he's been wholeheartedly in favour of any Labour leader since Keir Hardie. The title of his latest movie, Bread and Roses, a film about a more-or-less successful industrial action involving the unionisation of office cleaners in Los Angeles, comes from the slogan of the striking workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912: 'We want bread - and roses, too.' Ah, those were the days! That slogan is echoed in other Loach films - his TV quartet about the 1926 National Strike, Days of Hope, and his superb film set in the Spanish Civil War, Land and Freedom.
Loach's career is one of the most singular in British cinema, 36 unremitting years as a left-wing moviemaker. He's thought of, and clearly thinks of himself, as an uncompromising artist working in a hostile environment and this is undoubtedly true. Nevertheless, he's managed to make 14 feature films as well as 22 movies and documentaries for television. Few of the theatrical works have found a large popular audience in the English-speaking world, and some of the TV films were rejected as too tendentious by the channels that commissioned them. But Loach, so far as one knows, has never had a film re-edited by a producer or distributor, though Kes, his one uncontested masterpiece, was subtitled in the States.
Over the decades, he has also found congenial and like-minded collaborators to help him plough his lonely furrow. Writers Barry Hines, Jim Allen and Paul Laverty (author of Bread and Roses); cinematographers Chris Menges and Barry Ackroyd; designer Martin Johnson; editor Jonathan Morris; composer George Fenton; producers Tony Garnett, Sally Hibben, Rebecca O'Brien - all have worked with him on four films or more.
Although set in the States, Bread and Roses is financed by five European countries and is in no sense a Hollywood movie. From as far back as Cathy Come Home, Loach has always tried to give his films an unmediated sense of life through the use of hand-held cameras, improvised dialogue and a deliberately rough, documentary look. From the start, when the film's heroine, Maya (Pilar Padilla), arrives in Los Angeles as an illegal immigrant from Mexico, there's a sense of the camera as a barely tolerated presence.
The film begins with Hispanic crooks preventing a reunion between Maya and her elder sister, Rosa (Elpidia Carrillo), because Rosa hasn't raised the balance of the transportation fee. At the end, it comes full circle when Rosa runs after the US Immigration authority bus that is taking a central character to be dumped back over the border. In between those distressing scenes, Maya proves herself an energetic, energising force, first escaping from the clutches of the vile desperado who demands sex in place of the unpaid immigration bill.
She then gets a job working with Rosa as a cleaner in a skyscraper that houses numerous top law firms and Hollywood agents, and immediately forms an alliance with a crafty young union organiser, Sam (Adrien Brody), who politicises her the way a similarly bearded left-wing Jewish intellectual does working-class factory girl Sally Field in Norma Rae.
Their initial meeting is playful in a Chaplinesque mode as she helps him avoid the security guards who pursue him. Thereafter, their relationship is more serious as he stages a series of consciousness-raising meetings with her colleagues (mostly Latin American, though there's one very unco-operative Russian immigrant) and they conduct a guerrilla campaign to attract media attention and to undermine the morale of the skyscraper's proprietors.
No one seeing this film could dispute the charge that the janitors are dreadfully exploited and are correct in demanding better conditions and pay and the right to organise. Not for the first time, however, Loach treats all middle-class people with contempt and holds up to ridicule those he regards as class-traitors who serve the capitalist establishment - foremen, the police, bureaucrats. There are not many characters in his films like the kindly schoolmaster in Kes and the understanding parish priest in Raining Stones.
He is also hostile to the older trade-union officials who disapprove of Sam's theatricality and provocations. Loach, one infers, would rather lose than compromise. Fabian tactics are anathema to him and the small victories that stem from New Labour and the social ameliorisation that might have flowed from Gore defeating Bush are to him not worth having. The nearest Bread and Roses gets to recognising certain complex bedrock truths about social situations and human nature is when Maya discovers that her sister has turned informer to pay for her husband's medical bills and has worked as a prostitute for a decade to support the family back in Mexico City. But in defending Rosa, Maya cannot just say: 'She's uninsured.' She has to add: 'Like 40 per cent of the people of the country.'
Two recurrent Loach motifs turn up in this film. The first is his romantic attachment to Hispanic women and his belief, as shown in Land and Freedom and Carla's Song, that rebel girls should not confer their sexual favours on men until they've proved their political worth. The second is that Loach clearly agrees with the nineteenth-century French anarchist Proudhon that 'property is theft'. In Raining Stones, the unemployed workers steal the turf from a Conservative Club bowling green; in My Name is Joe, a team of unemployed youths steal soccer shirts and shorts from a van; here, Maya robs a filling station to put a comrade into law school; in each case, these escapades are played for laughs.
The most up-to-date line comes when Sam tells the jubilant workers: 'You've got to stop begging and organise. Stand up for your rights.' What he actually says, and a factor in getting this movie a 15 certificate, is: 'Stand up for your fucking rights.'