Ken Loach, the glumly social-realist British director, has shifted his attentions to Los Angeles in Bread and Roses, about the struggle of janitors to unionize. The drama has its real-life precedent in a 1990 riot that erupted when police in Century City attacked peaceful demonstrators in the so-called Justice for Janitors campaign. The violence, caught on the nightly news, helped force International Service Systems, the biggest cleaning company in the country, to sign a union contract in Los Angeles County.
Loach and his screenwriter, Paul Laverty, have an unfortunate penchant for agitprop melodrama. At times, Bread and Roses has the feel of a Depression-era tract: The cleaning-company boss (George Lopez) is a scummy bully, and the rich people whose high-rise offices the janitors clean are cardboard meanies. Meanwhile, the multiethnic band of workers, primarily illegal-immigrant Latinos and a few African-Americans, are, for the most part, a staunch and righteous breed. Things start to boil on all fronts when Maya (Pilar Padilla), a newly arrived Mexican illegal staying at the home of her sister Rosa (Elpidia Carrillo), falls for Sam, the Anglo union organizer (Adrien Brody).
None of this would be worth much serious mention except that Loach has gotten hold of a marvelous subject -- the invisibility of the working poor in the environs of the rich -- that keeps you watching despite all the banner-waving. And Elpidia Carrillo, a great actress (The Border; Salvador; Mi Familia), delivers a monologue about the sacrifices she has made that is so furiously sad it leaves you shaken and yet grateful for having felt something so rich and complex and, for once, undogmatic.
Lanisha (Kerry Washington), Maria (Melissa Martinez), and Joycelyn (Anna Simpson) -- three teenage girlfriends from Crown Heights who go through a hot summer in the new film Our Song -- don't have the camera-ready look that so many teens in the movies and on MTV have right now. Which is not to say they don't hold the screen. They certainly do, especially Washington, whose face, delicate and quietly beseeching, is one that comes along very rarely in the movies. But there's none of the teen-pic posturing common to youth movies that both flatter and condescend to their young audiences. Although all three friends, members of the Jackie Robinson Steppers Marching Band, are played by actresses with at least some training, they have a freestyle, make-it-up-as-you-go-along quality. It's as if nonactors had magically stepped out of their lives and into these roles.
Jim McKay, who wrote and directed, keeps the entire film on the same intuitive, small-scale level as the performances. Our Song isn't really much more than a funny, touching little squiggle, but it has a bracing honesty and pays particular heed to the betweenness in people's lives, to how much goes on when nothing seems to be going on at all. The action in this movie, such as it is, would be considered downtime in a typical melodrama. Even the teen-pregnancy material involving Maria is not overscaled; it's just another complication for her to deal with. McKay has an abiding affection for these girls, which translates into a respect for the difficulties of their maturation. Although Our Song is fictional, it has the observant and embracing qualities of a good documentary. You learn about the lives of people who may be very far away from you, and very close.
Set in a German-occupied Czech town during World War II, Divided We Fall, which was nominated this year for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, recalls at its best the folksy, bittersweet movies from the sixties Czech-film renaissance. Director Jan Hrebejk and his screenwriter, Petr Jarchovsky, were both born in the late sixties, and so in a sense their film represents a revisiting by a new generation of the subjects that shaped that renaissance. And, like some of the films from that era, particularly The Shop on Main Street, Divided We Fall utilizes, with varying success, themes of anti-Semitism and collaboration in order to achieve a wider view of intolerance.
A childless couple, played by Anna Sisková and Boleslav Polívka (particularly fine), hide in their apartment annex the Jewish son of a former employer (Csongor Kassai) who has escaped from a concentration camp. Fearing discovery and reprisal, the husband takes a job with a Nazi collaborator and former workmate (Jaroslav Dusek). The complications and deceptions multiply into a kind of slapstick horror, but the filmmakers pull away from the full ghastliness of their own conception (apparently based on a true story). The wrap-up has a fablelike pleasantness that serves as a gentle reproach to all the Holocaust-themed movies that have left us feeling hopeless. Divided We Fall is intended to be restorative, but its wish fulfillments, while charming, are also a bit too gaga for that.
Gillo Pontecorvo's very rarely shown first feature, the 1957 Wide Blue Road, is being released in a restored print courtesy of Milestone. Yves Montand stars as a fisherman who lives with his family on a small island off the Dalmatian coast of Italy and survives by fishing illegally in the open sea with explosives. Pontecorvo has made only four other features since this first one, of which just two, Battle of Algiers and Burn, are well known. I can't think of a greater director with less of an interest in fulfilling his greatness. The Wide Blue Road, written by Franco Solinas, who went on to co-write Francesco Rosi's Salvatore Giuliano and Costa-Gavras's State of Siege, is a somewhat awkward mixture of Marxism and social realism (not to mention glamour; in addition to Montand, Alida Valli stars as the fisherman's wife). It's worth seeing, though, not only for its occasional moments of breathtaking beauty and sadness but also because its very rarity demands it. (At Film Forum.)
Bread and Roses
Directed by Ken Loach.
Written and directed by Jim McKay.
Divided We Fall
Directed by Jan Hrebejk.
The Wide Blue Road
Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo.