Tuesday, April 23, 2024

“LA COCINA”

THE STORY – It is the lunchtime rush at The Grill, a New York tourist trap that serves thousands of customers on a regular Friday like today. Money has gone missing from the till, and all the workers are being questioned. Most of them are illegal immigrants, and they struggle to defend their jobs, their only rightful place in the world, as they prepare an endless array of dishes, trying to keep up with the constant stream of orders coming in from the dining room. One of the cooks is Pedro, a young Mexican who is seeking more from life than this job has to offer. He is a dreamer and a troublemaker, and he is in love with Julia, an American waitress who cannot commit to a relationship with an undocumented alien. Rashid, The Grill’s owner, has promised to help Pedro with his papers. But when Pedro is accused of stealing the money and then discovers that Julia has had an abortion, he sees red and spirals towards an act that will halt the production line at the kitchen once and for all.

THE CAST – Raúl Briones Carmona, Rooney Mara, Anna Diaz, Motell Foster & Oded Fehr

THE TEAM – Alonso Ruizpalacios (Director/Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 139 Minutes


Imagine the worst day you’ve ever had at work. Imagine the exhaustion, the physical pain, the sound of your brain screaming for air. Now multiply it by a thousand, and you can probably imagine what existing in Alonso Ruizpalacios’ film “La Cocina” feels like. The exhausting film, written and directed by Alonso Ruizpalacios, seems to contain an entire lifetime in its 139-minute runtime despite it taking place throughout one work shift. This is not a criticism; the film is a singular achievement capturing the frantic anxiety of “Uncut Gems” or “Boiling Point,” forcing its audience to experience every single emotion possible, with no room to catch a breath.

The film opens with a quote from Henry David Thoreau that includes the sentence, “This world is a place of business,” and “La Cocina” exemplifies the lie of the American dream in the most brutal way. The hustle culture of late-stage capitalism and the exploitation of undocumented immigrants living in the US is explored through a day in the life of the employees at “The Grill.” The food establishment is a busy tourist trap located in the middle of Times Square in New York City. The menu is miles long, the food looks disgusting, and the customers are unhappy. Compared to recent depictions of food on-screen (As seen in “The Bear,” “The Taste of Things,” and “The Menu”), the Grill serves food that is made for high turnover, not for a love of cooking. Based on the play “The Kitchen” by Arnold Wesker, “La Cocina” explores the result of forgoing artistry and exploiting the artist. Estela, a quiet new hire played by Anna Diaz, is the audience’s point of entry into the film and an example of the brutality of the industry; she is a Michelin star chef forced to endure a kitchen that has no respect for her craft.

The restaurant is split into two halves: the kitchen, which is operated in Spanish, and the dining room, operated in English. Amongst these two halves, we meet passionate Mexican chef Pedro, played brilliantly by Raúl Briones Carmona, and serious American waitress Julia (Academy Award-nominee Rooney Mara), who is tangled in a romantic, sexual, and turbulent pseudo-relationship. They are not together but are bound to one another through Julia’s pregnancy. While Julia contemplates terminating the pregnancy, Pedro desperately tries to prove himself to her, seeing the abortion as a rejection of himself.

Alongside this ordeal, Pedro finds himself caught up in more significant issues when money goes missing from the register, and he is the main suspect. The subsequent interrogation of the Grill’s employees is cruel, and the kitchen’s heat during the lunchtime rush creates an atmosphere that feels suffocating. In many ways, the film is reminiscent of a noir. Filmed in dramatic black-and-white, the shots are composed of intense shadows as the camera peers through windows and vents, always observing the chaos in the claustrophobic 4:3 Academy ratio. One particular sequence is shot in a continuously breathless single take, constantly winding back and forth through the maze of the restaurant as the Grill descends into catastrophe. The physical construction of the restaurant is impressive, creating a sense of imprisonment from the world outside, and the sound design is critical in making these impossibly busy scenes, overwhelming the senses with yelling, dishes clattering, and knives chopping food.

While it is stressful to watch, the screenplay can be amusing. The restaurant employees have a rapport with each other, which frequently involves them hurling insults across the kitchen in various languages to humorous effect. The comedy is interspersed with jolts of discomfort when tensions rise, and racist and misogynistic remarks are rife throughout. Their manager, Luis (Eduardo Olmos), verbally abuses the restaurant employees. For many, including Pedro, the hope of getting papers is constantly held over their heads to keep them working under such conditions. Despite his aggression and meanness, it’s clear that Pedro possesses the charm of a leader in this kitchen, which is sometimes detrimental when his temper gets the best of him. Conflict with fellow chef Max (Spenser Granese), who attempts to enforce English upon the staff, leads Pedro into trouble repeatedly, and the combination of these obstacles forces him to a breaking point that is riveting to watch unfold.

“La Cocina” dances a fine line between chaos and calm. The stress that exists within the restaurant is balanced by a few significant, quiet moments. It is in these moments that we can see why Pedro and Julia have a connection, as they share an intimate moment by a lobster tank reminiscent of the iconic fish tank scene from the 1996 Baz Luhrmann film “Romeo and Juliet.” A conversation about dreams shared in an alley between the chefs is maybe the film’s highlight; beautifully written and acted, and never clichéd. In a handful of scenes, we can finally see how Pedro wishes to cook for people, but they are intentionally short and cruelly leave the audience wanting more.

“La Cocina” is as sharp as a kitchen knife and a witty endeavor into the loss of dignity under capitalism. Supported by solid technical elements across the board and high-caliber acting, Ruizpalacios’ direction transforms the intensity of this kitchen into something beautifully heartbreaking that implores audiences to examine the undermining of artistry in the modern world all for the sake of profit.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - The crafts are exceptional and support the storytelling well. Clear direction and messaging that isn't pandering to its audience with clichés. Raúl Briones Carmona is a mighty force, giving a standout performance.

THE BAD - The film could have benefitted from being slightly shorter, as the story arc is sometimes swept up in the mess of the drama.

THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best International Feature, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Production Design & Best Sound

THE FINAL SCORE - 9/10

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>The crafts are exceptional and support the storytelling well. Clear direction and messaging that isn't pandering to its audience with clichés. Raúl Briones Carmona is a mighty force, giving a standout performance.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>The film could have benefitted from being slightly shorter, as the story arc is sometimes swept up in the mess of the drama.<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b><a href="/oscar-predictions-best-picture/">Best Picture</a>, <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-director/">Best Director</a>, <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-actor/">Best Actor</a>, <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-adapted-screenplay/">Best Adapted Screenplay</a>, <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-international-feature/">Best International Feature</a>, <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-cinematography/">Best Cinematography</a>, <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-film-editing/">Best Film Editing</a>, <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-production-design/">Best Production Design</a> & <a href="/oscar-predictions-best-sound/">Best Sound</a><br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>9/10<br><br>"LA COCINA"