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Rooney Mara , Raul Briones in Mexican KitchenDrama

February 16, 2024 - Culture

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Mexican director Alonso Ruizpalacios has had a winning record coming to the Berlin Film Festival since 2013 when his first movie, Gueros took the Best First Feature prize. Five years later he was back with his second, the sensational museum heist film Museo and deservedly he won the Silver Bear for Best Screenplay. His third, A Cop Movie which plays with the traditional docu form by using actors was also an award winner for Best Documentary at Mexico’s Golden Ariel Awards.

Ruizpalacios belongs in the same league as current iconic Mexican directors like Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuaron, and particularly Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu whose cinematic style seems closest to what Ruizpalacios has been doing. His latest trip to Berlin, La Cocina reinforces the thrilling talent of this singular filmmaker who for the first time has shot a film using both Spanish and English, one featuring American star Rooney Mara in the cast, as well as a stunning, uninhibited, shoot-for-the-stars turn from Raul Briones who previously worked with Ruizpalacios in A Cop Movie and took the Ariel for Supporting Actor. Here he goes for broke.

Basing his screenplay rather loosely on Arnold Wesker’s 1957 play and 1961 British movie, The Kitchen, which both focused on the employees of a restaurant as they go about a typical morning on the job, Ruizpalacios maintains the setting and the idea, but infuses more of his own background once working in a London restaurant (a time where he first saw the play) and merging the American Dream of immigrants seeking a better life finding work in NYC’s tourist trap eatery, The Grill because they don’t need papers and can get good tips. But as far as food is concerned this is no Babette’s Feast or The Taste Of Things. The food served up looks bad, and it clearly is, and the kitchen here mostly resembles a melting pot of immigants, largely, and their own stories and interactions with each other, their bosses, and the task of just trying to make a living in a country not their own. To put it mildly La Cocina is like The Bear on steroids, a black and white pressure cooker that builds to a fierce and explosive finale. In the divisions between staff and management, the mix of American and non-American customers, this is meant to show us not just what The Grill is like on a typical day, but also the world itself. With its focus on these immigrants and their plight it becomes a timely and powerful portrait of where we are today, a far cry however from another brilliant film that focused on similar dreams, Elia Kazan’s 1963 America America.

As it opens we see the shadowy B&W images of an emergence past the statue of liberty into New York City. We meet Estela (Anna Diaz), a young woman coming to the U.S. with only the name of a relative, Pedro (Brione) who works at the large restaurant and can help her get a job, despite the fact she has no papers or references. Her interview with a manager (Eduardo Olmos) is slippery, but she gets the job. Standards are not exactly high in this place. Showing him photographic evidence she has of their family ties and his younger days Estela also connects with Pedro. The focus does not stay on her though and the scenario shifts to the gregarious, larger than life dreamer, Pedro as well as others, most notably American waitress Julia (Mara) whom Estela meets in the locker room and immediately notices she is pregnant. A mother already, Julia does not want to keep the baby and is at odds with Pedro, the father who is in love with her even as she resists committment. Theirs becomes the key relationship played out here, a complicated sexual one, that grows more complex as Julia seeks an abortion.

Conflict also rears it head with a missing $800+ and suspicions of which employee may have stolen it, as well as Pedro’s relations with the intense (to say the least) chef (Lee R. Sellars), who will play a key role as it all becomes too much for Pedro. The pressure of the job becomes clear with a remarkable and stunningly choreographed scene as we see the frenetic pace of just what goes on at rush hour in this restuarant. It appears to be a single 12 minute + tracking shot in and out of all areas as the staff is on overdrive, a dazzling showcase for the talents of Director of Photography Juan Pablo Ramirez, shooting in vivid B&W but putting it all on the line in this sequence, which is followed by a much quieter moment out in the back street as Pedro and some other workers talk about their hopes and dreams in coming for a better life, particularly a moving monologue by a Black employee (a superb Motell Foster).

For Mara, this role is a nice change of pace and she is excellent, as is the entire cast which includes Oded Fehr as Rashid, the big boss, who had promised to help Pedro become legal.

La Cocina is a ride, an unforgettable and gripping look inside not just a restaurant kitchen but the complicated lives of the invisible people who provide its heartbeat. It had its World Premiere tonight in competition at the Berlin Film Festival and is looking for American distribution.

Title: La Cocina

Festival: Berlin Film Festival

Director/Screenplay: Alonso Ruizpalacios

Cast: Raul Briones, Rooney Mara, Anna Diaz, Motell Foster, Oded Fehr, Eduardo Olmos, Laura Gomez

Running Time: 2 hours and 19 minutes.

Sales Agent: Fifth Season and WME (North American); Hanway Films (International)

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