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Rooney Mara, Raul Briones in 'La Cocina' (courtesy of Tribeca FF)

Tribeca Film Festival Review: ‘La Cocina’ with Rooney Mara

La Cocina: Migrants in a New York City Kitchen

From the outset, La Cocina, Mexican director Alonso Ruizpalacios’s searing, textured black-and-white narrative feature, transfixes. In a superb long shot, the camera follows Mexican teenage migrant Estela (Anna Diaz). Riding the Staten Island Ferry, past the Statue of Liberty, then debarking, she moves into the bowels of Manhattan’s grimy, churning innards.

As she walks alone through alleys filled with garbage, she makes her way to the back entrance and offices of The Grill, a Times Square restaurant. Because she references the name of line cook Pedro, manager Luis (Eduardo Olmos), a cocky immigrant, during a confused interview hires her as a cook. Because of her illegal, underage status, she joins the other underpaid migrants exploited for their valuable labor in La Cocina.

Isolation and Danger in the Migrant Experience

Immediately, Ruizpalacios creates empathy for the isolation and danger inherent in the migrant experience. We want Estela to be hired and succeed. But the director expertly creates a world of frenetic, pressurized, hellish conditions in the inhuman workplace, exacerbated by the screaming, irascible head chef (Lee Sellars). The kitchen sparks with antipathy. Furthermore, owner Rashid (Oded Fehr), oppresses as a sinister, smarmy overlord.

Immersed in the tragiccomedy, we watch the kitchen’s insanity build to a roiling peak during the lunchtime rush. As an outpaced Estela works the line with Pedro (the excellent Raúl Briones), each unfolding, heightening scene shakes us.

Not only do we question whether the slow Estela can handle the pace. We also question the willingness of the other diverse migrants to go through the soul-crushing grind as cooks and indentured slaves, who seek “the American Dream.” To receive the magical “green card,” they must withstand the shredding of the dehumanizing machine that eats them alive as they prepare shlock food for tourists.

The Chaotic “Back of the House”

As appalled voyeurs, we note the representational “back of the house” scenes, probably repeated across Manhattan’s touristy restaurants. The director has warned us with a quote from Thoreau before the film begins: “This world is a place of business. What an infinite bustle.” Reminding us of the warped capitalist ethic of bustling commercialism, the owner pushes money over humanity.

To advance his themes, the director captivates us with high-wired editing and frenetic pacing. Compelled, we follow the wild ride of the restaurant’s money-making machine and note how it hollows out people. We realize that in this place of business, those on the top (the diners) prefer not to “see” what those on the bottom (the laborers) go through to keep them served.

Into the frenzy slips Rooney Mara, superb as edgy, lustful Julia in this memorably cinematic film, loosely adapted from Arnold Wexler’s 1957 play of the same name. Her entrance joining the waitresses showering and dressing for service shifts the energy and conflict. Subsequently it ratchets up the stakes which crescendo into a powerful climax. Julia’s sexual intimacy with Pedro carried on in secret places like the meat locker has resulted in a pregnancy. But Pedro doesn’t favor her goal of an abortion. Instead, he angles that his child will oil the path to his residency.

Plot Twists Heighten the Urgency

Accountant Mark (James Waterston) finds $800 missing from a register. As Luis questions the workers, Pedro gives a wad of money to Julia for the abortion, though they argue about it. To shut him up, she throws him a sop and pushes him into the freezer for a “quick one.” Smitten with her as a “golden girl,” a U.S. citizen, he allows her to manipulate and use him.

After implying Pedro may have stolen the missing $800, the director throws in another plot twist. The waitresses gossip that the fiery Pedro attacked line cook Max (Spenser Granese) with a knife the previous day. Though Pedro apologizes, Max’s fury threatens to boil over into manslaughter if further provoked.

Accidentally, Pedro learns about Julia’s abortion and her loyalty to her first family, and explodes. Subsequently, the “inmates” in the kitchen madhouse become riled as Pedro fights Max. Driven by his emotionalism and inner chaos, Pedro breaches the front of the house. Crashing into tables and chairs, he disrupts the pleasant atmosphere and upsets the diners. Effectively, Pedro stops service. Returning to the kitchen, he melts down masochistically in front of his co-workers, the chef and the boss.

Briones’ Portrayal Centers the Film’s Wildness

Briones’ masterful portrayal successfully turns the film into a memorable socioeconomic revelation of migrant catastrophe. Those migrants who labor and tie their work to achieving their dreams appear to be fools. In an interesting unresolved conclusion, Rashid justifies that he “gives so much” to his workers that it should be enough. Then he asks, “What do you want?” The nonplussed workers stay silent. No one can articulate that a job with dignity and soul affirmation would be what satisfies them.

With Ruizpalacios’ unusual use of music (austere choral works to frenetic jazz), heart-throbbing editing, and excellent ensemble work, La Cocina is a tour de force. It depicts the migrant experience with irony and comedic horror. Tying in the American Dream, the director includes an interim quiet scene to slow the wild frenzy of the kitchen’s abusiveness. In the alley, away from “the bustle,” a few migrants share their hopes with each other. One dreamer relates a story in which a migrant magically disappears. The director teases at the conclusion that this might happen to Pedro.

And like dreamers in the U.S. today, we wait for divine intervention to make conditions better. Meanwhile, the machine continues to churn out receipts. And diners continue to patronize restaurants unaware of the torments migrants go through to put together lunch and dinner.

Look for the symbols throughout this film of many messages. It’s currently screening at the Tribeca Film Festival.

About Carole Di Tosti

Carole Di Tosti, Ph.D. is a published writer, playwright, novelist, poet. She owns and manages three well-established blogs: 'The Fat and the Skinny,' 'All Along the NYC Skyline' ( 'A Christian Apologists' Sonnets.' She also manages the newly established 'Carole Di Tosti's Linchpin,' which is devoted to foreign theater reviews and guest reviews. She contributed articles to Technorati (310) on various trending topics from 2011-2013. To Blogcritics she has contributed 583+ reviews, interviews on films and theater predominately. Carole Di Tosti also has reviewed NYBG exhibits and wine events. She guest writes for 'Theater Pizzazz' and has contributed to 'T2Chronicles,' 'NY Theatre Wire' and other online publications. She covers NYC trending events and writes articles promoting advocacy. She professionally free-lanced for TMR and VERVE for 1 1/2 years. She was a former English Instructor. Her published dissertation is referenced in three books, two by Margo Ely, Ph.D. Her novel 'Peregrine: The Ceremony of Powers' will be on sale in January 2021. Her full length plays, 'Edgar,' 'The Painter on His Way to Work,' and 'Pandemics or How Maria Caught Her Vibe' are being submitted for representation and production.

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