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Alonso Ruizpalacios La cocina Review


La cocina | 2024 Berlin Intl. Film Festival Review

La cocina | 2024 Berlin Intl. Film Festival Review

Soap Kitchen: Ruizpalacios Underwhelms & Over Bakes Food Drama

Alonso Ruizpalacios La cocina ReviewMaking his English language debut with fourth feature La Cocina, based on the notable stage play by Arnold Wesker, Alonso Ruizpalacios presents an absurd, impulsive microcosm of oft invisible experiences. Taking place behind-the-scenes in what appears to be a mediocre tourist mainstay in Times Square (set in an era before cellphones), a teeming community of workers tossed together like a makeshift family goes about the daily grind. As circumstances dictate, the focus is one particularly grueling lunch shift in which various coinciding dilemmas come to a show stopping head.

Much like his exceptional 2018 title Museo, Ruizpalacios gravitates towards the power of process, drifting into tangentiality of the narrative to collect the milk of human experiences. But in all the galvanizing hustle and bustle, wherein an addiction to chaos has seemingly been conditioned for any forced or daring to survive such an environment, it is ultimately a film which tries too hard for far too long to whip up the requisite despair it aims for. It is a style and a narrative of various powerful subtexts which aims to be a souffle. But the emotional elegance is unfortunately lacking, sinking beneath the weight of unconvincing soap opera semantics.

Estela (Anna Diaz) makes her way to The Grill on 49th Street, depending on the kindness of strangers as she navigates the subway. She’s searching for Pedro (Raúl Briones Carmona), a friend of the family whose connections as a cook at this restaurant should hopefully assist her in obtaining work. With a little luck and some tenacity, she wheedles her way in, despite not speaking English. But the staff is besotted with drama. One of the restaurant’s managers has discovered eight hundred dollars is missing from one of last night’s tills, and each employee will be interviewed throughout the day to discover who may be the culprit. Meanwhile, Pedro seems to be the central figure in much of the day’s drama. A violent fight with one of the cook’s from the night before has everyone on edge. But he’s also been having a not-so-secret affair with Julia (Rooney Mara), part of the wait staff who has plans to have an abortion on this very day between lunch and dinner shifts.

The film’s only eloquent moment arrives in the opening credits with a quote from Henry David Thoreau before it descends into a black and white carnival of errors. As we’re introduced to a main clutch of characters, there’s an early sense of Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989) with the pseudo-secretive affair between Pedro and Julia, lurking about in the bowels of the restaurant as they oscillate between romance and violence. But despite the assortment of visual textures and formidable framing from DP Juan Pablo Ramirez, La Cocina eventually feels like a passable arthouse version of the Ryan Reynolds-led comedy Waiting…(2005).

Ruizpalacios employs the use of two Lee Hazelwood tracks to invite some woozy romanticization, but the stakes simply aren’t raised high enough to justify the immaculate disintegration which eventually transpires. Too many nagging questions arise, which remain in the ether even as it reveals not-so-shocking secrets about Julia. For instance, why does it have to be this particular day for the abortion? Eventually, it would seem, this toxic purgatory is more so evidentiary about how Pedro is the master of his own undoing. And while there’s a certain sense of homage paid to the invisible working class, the trapped immigrant, and various highlights of a maintained hierarchy of not only gender but conditioned beauty standards, all of these more interesting bits are swallowed by our adherence to an obnoxious couple who, like many, have modified their work environment to meet the needs they cannot fulfill outside of the daily grind. During one egregiously taxing aside, Pedro forces several coworkers to share what they dream about. We’re treated to a long monologue from his colleague, ostensibly included to set up the meaningfulness of the film’s closing moment. But this ends with the film’s most astute subconscious observation of itself when the actor asks, “What was the point of all that?”

Reviewed on February 16th at the 2024 Berlin International Film Festival – Main Competition section. 139 mins.


Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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