Who knew that Will Smith could deliver the year’s most unexpected and profoundly moving love story? He plays Ben a man with a deep dark secret that leads him help seven complete strangers each with their own particular set of circumstances. Constructed like a jigsaw puzzle we slowly get clues to the traumatic events that cause Ben to contact these people and change their lives in ways they never could have anticipated. What he doesn’t expect is to fall in love with one of them -- Emily Posa (Rosario Dawson) a cardiac patient whose heart may be weak but is clearly strong enough to make a difference in the way Ben looks at things. It’s this relationship that becomes the center of Grant Nieporte’s compelling screenplay but as it continues it’s obvious there is more to what Ben is doing a mystery not revealed until the final moments and one you will not easily forget. Will Smith is at his best. He may be the world’s No. 1 movie star at the moment but he’s continually proving himself to be a brilliant actor as well. Reteaming with director Gabriele Muccino who led him to a Best Actor Oscar nomination in The Pursuit of Happyness Smith once again finds his dramatic mojo in the role of a man whose life has been shattered by something so profoundly affecting that he reaches out to strangers in an effort to redeem himself. You will be hard-pressed to find the loveable Will Smith persona anywhere within this character. Dawson also has a career best as the spunky and courageous Emily a role that could have been sloppily sentimentalized and maudlin. She’s a revelation delivering a flawless and luminous performance. And best among the various recipients of Ben’s kindness is Woody Harrelson as a blind man he encounters. Also quite good is Barry Pepper as Ben’s childhood friend who is the only other person “in” on Ben’s master plan helping him to achieve his goal. He rips your heart out when he gets the call from Ben who says “It’s time.” Gabriele Muccino puts it all out there. He is an unapologetically emotional director and some will probably find fault with his style but as the Italian filmmaker proved in Pursuit of Happyness he knows exactly what he’s doing and where he’s taking the story. He’s most successful here in building suspense and an air of mystery around Smith’s character and then bringing it all home in a whopper of a final act. Clearly story acting and gut-level feeling are the three things that drive Muccino and his distinctive stamp and European approach is evident throughout. Most of all he has given Smith and Dawson a real showcase finding the meat of a story that’s one from the heart and good for the soul.
A young Mexican woman Maya (Pilar Padilla) is anxious to come to America and live a better life. In a daring opener she illegally crosses the California/Mexican border and with a few glitches she eventually joins her older sister Rosa (Elpidia Carrillo) in Los Angeles. For Rosa a life trying to support her two children and tend to her sick husband has been hard-she is well aware of the harsh realities of Latinos in the U.S. But the optimistic and eager Maya nonetheless wants to work with Rosa at her job as a building janitor. Unfortunately her views quickly sour when the conditions on the job become almost unbearable especially under a tyrannical and lecherous boss. Then she disccovers her true voice. With the help of a passionate union activist Sam (Adrien Brody) Maya fights for her workplace to join the "Justice for Janitors" union. Rosa believes these actions will only end in disaster but Maya is convinced she can win every battle on her own terms. Her fight ultimately leads to unexpected consequences--and sacrifices--in the young woman's life.
Director Ken Loach blends a combination of experienced film actors with raw newcomers to form a truly excellent ensemble cast but spirited Mexican actress Pilar Padilla's debut performance is what draws you into the film. Loach originally did not consider her for the part because she didn't speak English but through improvisations in Mexico where she acted as a sparring partner for other candidates her sheer presence made the camera gravitate towards her. With an intensive crash course in English she became Maya. Also superb is Elpidia Carrillo (Salvador) whose jaded yet fiercely independent Rosa counteracts Maya's youthful innocence. In the pivotal scene where Rosa lets Maya know how much she has truly sacrficed for Maya and her family the audience is just as horrified as Maya--and riveted. Indie favorite Adrien Brody (Liberty Heights) does a nice job as Sam the union activist whose guerilla methods provide some interesting comic relief and his and Padilla's love scenes are at once sweetly sexy and slightly goofy.
Though the beauty of Bread and Roses is that it gives an intimate and social portrait of the real life struggles Latinos face in contemporary Los Angeles British director Loach comes to the story as an outsider much as Maya does when she first gets to Los Angeles. Nonetheless it offers insight into the experiences of a extremely hard-working group of people who once thought of America as the place to make a life for themselves. When they arrive in this land of plenty however many find they have to get what jobs they can for very little money--and with little support from the establishment. The rights of the working man is not an unfamiliar theme in films but to have it treated from a Latino perspective is refreshing. Loach also uses both Spanish and English subtitles often switching mid-sentence as the actors speak both languages at the same time. The technique is a tad hard to follow at first but it eventually flows immersing the viewer into the reality of this world.