If “the kitchen as war zone” has become a veritable sub-genre unto itself, Alonso Ruizpalacios’ “La Cocina” is the closest thing it has to its own “Gallipoli.” The trenches are made out of stainless steel instead of rotten wood, and the steady bombardment of orders comes with a greater threat of deportation than it does that of immediate death, but a job at The Grill just outside of Times Square is no less dehumanizing than a deployment along the frontlines at Suvla Bay, and it comes without any of the same hope for glory. 

On the contrary, the soul-crushing system that compels undocumented immigrants to do this kind of work depends upon keeping them out of sight; not only from ICE, but also from the tourists who can only enjoy their rubber-fried lunch because they don’t have to look at the labor that went into making it. Capitalism is sustained by the iron curtain that separates front and back of house, and its appetite is so insatiable that it has to feed the hopes of those workers just so it can eat them alive.

It’s the biggest machine ever built, and Ruizpalacios’ pressure-cooker of a drama — explosive, if a touch overdone — is a story about what happens behind the scenes at The Grill when that machine starts to break down.

Loosely based on an Arnold Wesker play that has been staged all over the world since 1957, “La Cocina” may not do all that much to reinvent the $30 hamburger, but Ruizpalacios’ claustrophobic film — informed by the writer-director’s own experience as a dishwasher and waiter at a horrific theme cafe in London — kicks things up enough notches that its best sequences can feel like a singular vision of hell, even if they’re meant to be representative of what’s happening behind the scenes at every overpriced eatery in America. While “La Cocina” can’t always shake the polemical stiffness of its source material or the political chokehold of its modernized setting, the film’s agit-prop expressionism allows it to push beyond the boundaries of other stories like it. 

It starts, of course, with opportunity. Well, technically it starts with a quote from Thoreau (“This world is a place of business. What an infinite bustle!”), but there’s the Statue of Liberty, and there’s a young woman in search of her American Dream. Her name is Estela (Anna Díaz), she’s just arrived in New York, and she’s come to The Grill because someone from home has a son who works there. The place is like a fortress, but once Estela talks her way inside, the film hardly leaves again. 

It doesn’t need to — The Grill is a world unto itself, complete with its own elaborate caste system and scandals, all of them overseen by a cartoonishly evil owner named Rashid (Oded Fehr) who speaks in riddles and runs the joint like a Bond villain. He wields his power in a way that proves seductive to the staff who rely on him for their under-the-table income; even Pedro (a magnetic Raúl Briones), the savviest and most ambitious member of the kitchen staff, is convinced that Rashid will help him with his papers if he just continues to work hard. Maybe that iron curtain will soften and swing open for him one day. 

Pedro might fashion himself as something of a hard-boiled realist (“There’s nothing more Mexican than groveling to the whites,” he sniffs at a co-worker who dares to ask for sympathy), but this scabrous charmer might be the biggest dreamer in the back of The Grill. Not only is he in love with Julia (Rooney Mara, bringing great texture to a role whose layers stay hidden until the very end), the frayed but beautiful hostess who moves between back and front of house with a citizen’s privilege, but he’s also gotten her pregnant — likely by pinning her against the wall of the kitchen’s walk-in freezer, as their secret relationship only seems to exist while they’re on the clock. Pedro wants to keep the baby, but Julia wants to slip out for an abortion during the middle of her shift; they argue about it on either side of a fish tank that’s decorated with a mini Statue of Liberty fish tank, the daily catch of doomed lobsters splashing around the water as if they’ve managed to reach freedom. 

“La Cocina” isn’t subtle, but there’s nothing subtle about the story it tells (“Pity Mexico,” goes the Justo Sierra quote that Ruizpalacios quotes in the film’s press notes, “so far from God, so close to the United States”). Pedro and his peers crank out shit food at an impossible pace for less than minimum wage; the speed of the orders keeps the restaurant in business, and ensures that its employees don’t have time to reflect on how they’re only a few inches away from paradise, and could probably hear it calling to them from the dining room if only the head chef weren’t always screaming at his staff.

“You can’t dream in a kitchen,” Pedro says through gritted teeth. There’s not enough time to think, let alone to fall asleep, or to steal $870 from the till. It appears that someone has, and the mystery of that missing money will hang over the movie from start to finish, as it takes less than a thousand dollars to expose how little Rashid actually values his employees.

That context is enough to warp the kitchen galley into a prison, and Juan Pablo Ramírez’s stunning black-and-white cinematography casts a purgatorial shadow on everything it sees; his camera gliding through the various turrets and back rooms with an inescapable grace that makes everything seem both larger than life and utterly negligible at the same time. The more that “La Cocina” alternates between operatic long-takes and grease-stained close-ups, the more you can feel its characters fighting to retain their souls in the face of a parable that’s eager to cast them as collateral damage. 

That tension between drama and rhetoric is the most obvious sign of this movie’s origins as a stage play, as moments of pure reality are punctured by moments of hyper-written dialogue and other palpably theatrical devices (including a long, long monologue in the middle of the film and occasional flashes of color so pointed that you can practically hear a stage manager cueing the lights).

Booming choral music and a flooded setpiece worthy of comparison to the riot sequence in “Werckmeister Harmonies” makes it clear that Ruizpalacios is more interested in epic symbolism than vérité portraiture, but his tendency to flip between allegory and real life frequently unbalances a film that’s most successful when it commits to both at the same time. Certain aspects of “La Cocina” feel as siloed away from each other as the back of house is from the front, and while it’s fitting that the discrete parts of Ruizpalacios’ film should belong to different worlds, the dream-like artifice of its design can eat away at the urgency of its drama. 

Perhaps that’s intentional — perhaps Ruizpalacios’ aesthetic is part of the systemic assault his film wages against its characters’ dwindling sense of hope. But if the tragic and full-throated “La Cocina” only tightens its grip as it goes along, that’s only because Pedro and his colleagues refuse to surrender the last shreds of their humanity to a machine that doesn’t care about what it costs to keep humming.

“Whatever happens,” a white hostess naively cautions another member of the staff, “it’s just work.” But it’s also life, and nowhere is it more valuable or harder to deny than in the middle of a war zone.

Grade: B

“La Cocina” premiered at the 2024 Berlin International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

Leave a comment