Saturday, May 18, 2024

Movie Review (Berlinale 2024): ‘La Cocina’ Stages Too Many Dramas

Director: Alonso Ruizpalacios
Writers: Alonso Ruizpalacios, Arnold Wesker
Stars: Kerry Ardra, María Fernanda Bosque, Raúl Briones Carmona

Synopsis: Follows the life in the kitchen of a NYC restaurant where cultures from all over the world blend during the lunchtime rush.

Alonso Ruizpalacios’ latest work, inspired by Arnold Wesker’s debut play of the same name, La Cocina (The Kitchen, screening in the Competition section for this year’s Berlinale), contains his usual, tangible narrative panderings that make his work so gripping. As previously in Güeros and his short Café Paraíso; betrayal, love, jealousy, and anger are at the forefront of this cinematic non-nouvelle yet cognizant cuisine. The Mexican filmmaker puts his characters through various emotional boiling points. However, it is a slight departure from his previous features, as it is a more staged and actorly piece rather than a naturalistic one, which is the critical factor in both its detriment and success. 

Opening with Henry David Thoreau’s quote, “the world is a place of business,” and arriving beforehand with the tagline “a tragic and comic tribute to the invisible people who prepare our food”, La Cocina is set in Hell’s Kitchen, New York. However, that location is the metaphorical representation of what goes on inside of the establishment, where arguments and the stress from the orders piling up flavor each meal prepared and spice up the atmosphere into an explosive array of discontent. Ever since I spent a year as a bartender/waiter at a local sit-down restaurant, I have seen these types of projects in a different light – understanding the highs and lows that this ultimately exhausting experience can bring. In a single day, we see the ins and outs of a restaurant on 49th Street named The Grill. 

This tourist trap gets hectic immediately as soon as the doors open and gets worse as it heads to dinner time. Considering the current trend of making culinary dramas, everything is far more frantic in the kitchen as opposed to where the customers wine and dine. A couple of situations are stacking up, one on top of the other in The Grill. Estela (Anna Diaz) is making her way to the restaurant with hopes that a family friend, the head cook Pedro (Raúl Briones Carmona), will help her get a job there. Secondly, a lot of money is missing from the previous night’s shift. About eight hundred dollars aren’t appearing, and everyone, from the waiting staff to the dishwashers, is being interviewed to find the culprit. 

The staff, mainly immigrants, try to fight for their respective jobs amidst the chaos. The restaurant’s owner, Rashid (Oded Fehr), told Pedro he would help him get his papers. But upon the disappearance of the money he is being accused of stealing, that sidetracks things heavily. The third (and final) situation comes in two parts, relating to the young cook Pedro, whose world is changing like a quick switch between love and violence, exasperation and hope. He is dealing with the aftershocks of two different situations: a fight with one of the cooks, which has the entire staff uneasy, and his affair with a member of the wait staff, Julia (Rooney Mara) – who is scheduled to have an abortion that same day. 

These scenarios develop layers of anger and disquietude, albeit not in the same manner as a horror/thriller picture. The frustration starts to boil as the pressure within the atmosphere gets ahold of them. To be completely honest, it all seems like there is too much happening at the same time. This causes La Cocina to garner a chaotic identity on its back, keeping it detached from the initially hinted-at truthful tenure and instead opting for one that can be deceived as slightly exanimate. To its benefit, Ruizpalacios has always had a keen eye for playing with how he handles the scenery and the atmosphere. Because of his directorial choices in these facets, a John Cassavetes-like sensibility emerges here. 

Both through its looks (monochrome cinematography and aspect ratio, which switches from 4:3 to 16:9) and in the performances by the talented cast (particularly Anna Díaz), you see how the legendary American filmmaker has inspired Ruizpalacios in La Cocina. Aesthetic-wise, there’s a slight resemblance to films like Faces and Shadows. This adds a bit of flair to the small-scale scenery and helps the film stand out. The staginess and boxed presentation help provide a more personal lens of the character’s lives. This allows the viewer to move around the story amidst the claustrophobic, suffocating locale. Even if this feature lacks the detail-orientated authenticity of the recently released kitchen dramas, Ruizpalacios correctly captures the nature of all. And I have to give him credit where it is due, as some scenes reminded me of my own experiences or ones that co-workers have gone through. 

But even though that sensation is organic, La Cocina feels overly excessive most of the time due to the theatrical nature of the source material and the translation from stage to screen. After mentioning these scenarios the characters are going through, you’d think this would amount to some high stakes in the grand scheme of things. The viewer might expect that, near closing its curtains, these situations would conclude in a way that delivers an astute observation on the immigrant experience or even the daily lives of restaurant workers and the working class. But what results in La Cocina’s closure are questions about the meaning behind being put through all of this. As it goes through the extraneous two-hour-plus runtime, Ruizpalacios packs every story beat with more thematic heft than the others, to the point where the final product is overcooked and unnecessarily opulent. 

Grade: C

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