La Cocina (2024)

La Cocina Review

La Cocina

Ever since 2013, when Gueros won the Best First Feature award at the Berlin Film Festival, Mexican director Alonso Ruizpalacios has had a good run at the event. Five years later he returned with his second feature, the sensational museum heist movie Museo, and duly snaffled the Silver Bear for Best Screenplay. A Cop Movie, Ruizpalacios’s third film which uses actors toying with the traditional docu form won Best Documentary at Mexico’s Golden Ariel Awards.

Ruizpalacios is spoken of in the same breath as fellow contemporary Mexican directors Guillermo del Toro and Alfonso Cuarón, but particularly Alejandro González Iñárritu, whose cinematic style seems closest to what Ruizpalacios has been doing. But La Cocina confirms that he is something else again: this thrillingly talented filmmaker from another planet who on this occasion has made a film in both Spanish and English for the first time. American actress Rooney Mara stars alongside Raul Briones one time Ariel winning Supporting Actor for A Cop Movie and now provider of an astounding display of uninhibited shooting for the stars acting here. He plays it like there’s no tomorrow.

Loosely based on Arnold Wesker’s 1957 play (and its 1961 British movie adaptation), The Kitchen takes place entirely within a restaurant during a typical morning shift among its employees. What Ruizpalacios keeps is more or less just that setting (though he sets it not just anywhere his own experience of working in a London restaurant inspired him to make films) and conceit immigrants chasing after their American Dream find work in The Grill, an NYC tourist trap eatery near Times Square where you don’t need papers or get much respect but you do get decent tips because tourists are generous. This isn’t Babette’s Feast or The Taste of Things as far as food goes it looks bad because it is bad. The kitchen is a melting pot of immigrants mostly and their own stories and interactions with one another and their bosses and the demands of trying to scrape by in a country that isn’t theirs.

The Bear on steroids doesn’t begin to cover it La Cocina is a pressure cooker, shot entirely in black and white that builds to an explosive climax. The division between staff and management American customers versus non-American ones we’re not just looking at what The Grill is like on an average day here we’re looking at the world. In focusing on these specific immigrants and their particular plight though it becomes something timely indeed timeless but very different from another great film about similar dreams Elia Kazan’s 1963 epic America America.

It opens with shadowy B&W images of someone emerging past the Statue of Liberty into Manhattan. Estela (Anna Diaz) has arrived from Mexico with only the name of a relative (Briones’ Pedro) who works at the restaurant. Despite having no papers or references she persuades a manager (Eduardo Olmos) to hire her at her interview by being slippery. Standards are not exactly high in this place.

Estela relates to Pedro, among others, a boisterous, larger than life dreamer (who will loom large in the narrative), notably American waitress Julia (Mara), whom Estela meets in the locker room she’s been given access to as part of her job and immediately registers as being pregnant. Already a mother herself, Julia doesn’t want this baby and is at odds with Pedro, the father, who loves her deeply though she resists commitment; theirs becomes the central relationship enacted here, a fraught sexual one that only gets more complicated when Julia decides to seek an abortion.

Conflict also comes into play with a missing $800+ and suspicions about which employee may have taken it; additionally, there are Pedro’s dealings with the hyper (to say the least) chef (Lee R. Sellars), who soon becomes key when things go south for Pedro; and further still his connection with an intense boss played by Oded Fehr.

The strain of working at La Cocina is brought home by an extraordinary single-take scene richly choreographed to show us what really happens in a restaurant kitchen during rush hour: It appears to be one unbroken 12-minute plus tracking shot through all areas in and out of which staff is bustling as they near peak capacity a stunning showcase for director of photography Juan Pablo Ramirez’s talents (shooting everything else in vivid B&W but going all out on this) followed by a much quieter moment out on the adjacent street where Pedro and some other workers share their hopes and dreams of coming to America for a better life, most pointedly expressed through an eloquent monologue delivered by Black employee (Motell Foster).

Watch La Cocina For Free On Gomovies.

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