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La Cocina

Americans myths of social integration, freedom and tolerance are bust, seared and broiled in this kitchen from hell - caustic social satire is in the Official Competition of the 74th Berlin International Film Festival


The Grill is a very busy restaurant at Times Square. Hundreds of daily diners ensure that the kitchen staff are never bored. Chefs and waiters must work in tandem with their demands, and without procrastination. The chicken masala, the pizza and the dessert must reach the customer table promptly and in the right temperature. The staff are a combination of immigrants from peripheral capitalism (Mexico, Albania, Morocco, etc) and Americans from a poor background. The bald Anglo-Saxonic boss (Lee R. Sellars) puts his vocal cords and an infinite supply of f-words to use in order to ensure that every single employee fulfils their duties to perfection. He occasionally breaks into singing, in a bizarre performance wrapped up by the public display of his buttocks (that’s presumably his idea of workplace entertainment). Gordon Ramsay would be green with envy.

Based on a play by Arnold Wesker, the story starts out with Estela (Anna Diaz) on her very first day at work. She approaches people on the street asking for the restaurant in Spanish. They respond in English, but she doesn’t understand it because she does not speak a single word in the language of Shakespeare. She eventually finds the restaurant, where she asks for an old friend called Pedro (Raul Briones Carmona). The perplexed male barely remembers the young woman, except for the day he force fed her chillies as a child. Estela relies on her Mexican colleagues and a Spanish-speaking middle manager in order to get by at work. This sense of linguistic alienation and isolation prevails throughout the movie, even between characters who speak the same tongue. People deliver philosophical and poetic platitudes only to be met with a hilarious “eh?” by the perplexed listener. A disgruntled white chef bullies his Albanian co-worker (“speak English!”), in a very misguided attempt to build bridges. Cat fighting and verbal abuse are common currencies in this claustrophobic environment, in a way not dissimilar to Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s DAU.Natasha (2020).

This social satire is deeply caustic, funny and at times a little scatological. It comments on class and power relations with eloquence. This is a Mexican-American version of Ruben Ostlund’s Triangle of Sadness (2022), except that it’s far superior. Alonso Ruizpalacios uses the toxic and paternalistic relationship between the United States and its large immigrant community as a gauge for humanity (or lack thereof). Mexicans shudder at the use of the word “America”, reminding the speaker that that “America is not a country” (but a continent instead). On other hand, they recognise that “grovelling to whites in the most Mexican of all things”. Perhaps the oppressed find comfort in their subordination after all? Some of the employees are undocumented, allowing ruthless managers to exert control and humiliate them. These illegal aliens are virtual hostages, oblivious to the promises of the Land of the Free. Pedro is lured by the promise of eventual legalisation: “They said that they will sort my papers next month”, says the boisterous, cocky and yet naive young man. The hierarchical relations are defined purely by money. Estela is asked to pay U$50 for a fake social security numbers. And the bosses subject their entire workforce to a mortifying investigation after (possibly wrongly) assuming that someone stole U$800.

The main plot involves Pedro and waitress Julia (Rooney Mara), who have a dysfunctional romance. Pedro has a controlling attitude compatible with Mexican machismo. Julia is vulnerable, and allows her man to wear the trousers, succumbing to his psychological and even physical blackmail right in front of their co-workers. The pair subvert the traditional imperialistic power relations because the male is the immigrant, while the female is the native American. Things take a turn for the worse after the company finds out that she needed U$800 for an abortion, making her number one suspect in their very unorthodox investigations.

Julia isn’t the only unhappy native. Black American Nonzo (Motell Foster) tells a very sad story when asked to share a dream with his colleagues. “Nobody said that it couldn’t be a nightmare”, he explains. The American dream is a fleeting illusion for Americans unlucky enough to be born in the margins, or for those who have simply fallen through the system cracks. Ruizpalacios subverts race and nationality at least one more time: the unscrupulous business owner Mr Rashid (Oded Fehr) clearly isn’t white.

Almost entirely shot in crisp black and white, La Cocina is a delightful to watch. The monochromatic palette conveys a feeling of distance and alienation, compatible with fractured relations and fractious environment of this very undesirable workplace. Dutch shots, unusual framing (heads are sometimes cut in half), and cameras positioned behind shelves and other physical dividers help to emphasise these sensations. A breathtaking handheld take lasting approximately a quarter of an hour divides this 140-minute film roughly in two: waiters and chef scramble to fulfil their functions, completely indifferent to that fact that the kitchen floor has been flooded with water (they have no time to acknowledge the hazard, let alone question its origins).

The film has only two colour scenes. In the first one, Pedro and Julia find respite inside the meat refrigerator, the unusually romantic place being flooded with a peaceful blue light. And the final last scene is permeated with green. Viewers might presume that this relates to the “green ray” (a flash of light in the horizon that allows you to read other people’s hearts), a recurring topic in the movie. Until we are tragically reminded that green is also the colour of money.

An elegant music score featuring Hank Williams, Lee Hazelwood and operatic tunes adds a delicious finishing touch.

La Cocina just premiered in the Official Competition of the 74th Berlin International Film Festival.

By Victor Fraga - 19-02-2024

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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