Bread and Roses begins on the border between Mexico and California where sadistic Mexican "coyotes," paid to ferry immigrants into America, lead a frightened group of refugees to the economic Promised Land. Paul Laverty, who also scripted Loach's previous, brilliant My Name Is Joe, centers his story on one illegal immigrant, Maya (Pilar Padilla), who comes to Los Angeles to live with her sister Rosa (Elpidia Carrillo) and her large family. Maya finds work alongside her older sister cleaning offices in a downtown Los Angeles skyscraper.
Tensions rise between the nose-to-the-grindstone Rosa and the upstart Maya when Maya is inspired by a young labor organizer, Sam (Adrien Brody), to help unionize her janitor compatriots. The outspoken, feisty Maya joins the crusade (based on the real-life L.A. "Justice for Janitors" campaign) to force the janitors' employer to improve working conditions with the rather clunky motto, "Give us bread, but give us roses, too," referring to the "perks" of vacation time, benefits and other frills denied non-unionized workers.
Speaking by telephone from Los Angeles, Loach admits that Bread and Roses presented a challenge for a filmmaker laboring outside his familiar milieu of the British working class. Since the '60s, Loach has built his impressive career on films that document, with canny naturalism and sympathy, the lives of British single mothers (Ladybird, Ladybird) or frustrated working stiffs (Raining Stones) struggling to put food on the family supper table.
Asked if he was intimidated by subject matter so far from the familiar, Loach clarifies, "not so much intimidated, as kind of anxious not to be like a tourist. Anxious to get it right. You have to work harder to get it right," says Loach in his woolly English brogue.
"One thing I think is really important is just respecting different languages ... Salvadoran is different than Mexican ... [and] allowing people to preserve that difference." In some ways a sophisticated portrait of the complex face of America's underclass, Bread and Roses not only acknowledges the variety of Latinos who understand the universal language of exploitation, but also features several Russian immigrants, manning vacuum cleaners and mops in the city's corporate towers whose acquaintance with an oppressive government tends to make them more docile and cynical about the possibility of change.
Bread and Roses is a return to familiar Loach territory, the director says, "in that it's [about] people faced with objective circumstances that are pretty harsh," though the director notes that the film also centers on the volatile, secret-laced relationship between Maya and Rosa.
"The relationship between two sisters is something I haven't touched on before ... which I find interesting, because a lot of families have resentments between one brother or sister and another. And in this case it's tied into the whole wider struggle they're in. All of that I found very interesting and complex."
Hardly the Spielbergian blockbuster fare that spreads through summertime multiplexes like E. coli through a kiddie pool, Bread and Roses is an admirable political effort to offer a document of worker exploitation without the enticements of Julia Roberts' cleavage or a Sheryl Crow theme song. Laboring in the lavish offices of Hollywood moguls, this invisible class of workers is an ironic presence in a town built on paying PC lipservice to workers' rights, an irony Loach's film only glancingly touches on.
But as much as one might want to root for Loach's righteous longtime lefty touché to Hollywood's passing liberal fancies, Bread and Roses is a failed film, pious and preachy like a copy of Class Struggle for Dummies. Abandoning the subtle critiques of his more successful films like My Name Is Joe, which treat social injustice covertly, as woven into the tapestry of ordinary British worker's lives, Bread and Roses is an example of Loach's more overtly political tendencies more cumbersomely explored in films like 1990's Land and Freedom. The result is uncomfortably stodgy agitprop that plays like amateur night at the Marxist Follies.
Mixing a cast of nonprofessional actors, like Mexican everywoman Pilar Padilla in her film debut, with some familiar faces, like Summer of Sam's Brody, Bread and Roses is nothing if not democratic in its approach to its actors, who are equally wooden as Laverty's clunky dialogue belches unconvincingly from their throats.
Despite its American setting and relatively conventional dramatic arc, Loach insists that Bread and Roses is in keeping with his larger interest in work as the most definitive and consuming aspect of people's lives treated in his more naturalistic, humanist dramas.
"I think certainly people define themselves by what they do and they sort of grow into the work. And the work almost determines how they become physically. It almost determines how they become in their body language and everything. It's also most people's social life as well. It's why unemployment is such a wicked thing to happen to people because it just destroys all that and destroys the sense of self and self-respect and network of friendships."