Egos are charred and tempers seared in La Cocina, a kitchen nightmare set in the engine rooms of a vast Times Square eatery where the staff have more pressing things to worry about than rising temperatures. Take Pedro (Raúl Briones Carmona, in his third Alonso Ruizpalacios joint), a hardened and still-undocumented line cook whose outbursts of ideology can only mask his resentments and vulnerability for so long. Then there’s Julia (Rooney Mara), who is carrying Pedro’s unborn child, hiding her morning sickness in the staff room and planning to sneak out on break to get an abortion. And then there’s Estela (Anna Diaz), our eyes and ears: fresh off the proverbial boat, with barely a word of English, asking strangers on the subway how to get to 45th street before being unceremoniously tossed into a lunch shift that soon resembles The Raft of the Medusa, adrift on a sea of Cherry Coke.

The director of this lively tableaux is Alonso Ruizpalacios, a filmmaker from Mexico who seems to have absorbed, as if by osmosis, the rhythms of his compatriot, Alejandro González Iñárritu. La Cocina premieres tonight at the Berlinale, continuing Ruizpalacios’ long association with the festival, and his rise in that time has been nothing if not steady: a breakout with Güeros in 2014, winning best first feature; a competition berth and a Silver Bear for his Gael García Bernal-starring Museo in 2018; again in comp with the Netflix produced A Cop Movie in 2021; and now Cocina, his first set in America (though as Pedro would say, “that’s not a country”) and the kind of film that oozes ambition and intent. Whether that level of volume ultimately rouses or numbs will come down to the viewer. Ruizpalacios’ film has style to burn but little interest in subtlety, and even the most high-grade hammers can lose their sheen after 139 minutes of hammering.

Ruizpalacios adapted the screenplay from Arnold Wesker’s The Kitchen: a play first presented in the Royal Court Theatre in 1959, when the setting was France and the cooks were German and Irish. In moving the setting to New York, somewhere near the present day, Ruizpalacios ups the stakes, keeping the play’s key scenes and characters while lacing its immigrant narrative with all the jeopardies involved with undocumented labor. The restaurant’s owner, Rashid (Oded Fehr), is seen keeping long-term staff in his pocket by promising to help them get their papers one day. Within five minutes of arriving, Estela’s new manager, Luis (Eduardo Olmos), is telling her how to get a fake Social Security number for $50. There is solidarity between the staff and plenty of ball-breaking, but much of that is put on hold when a sum of money goes missing. Amongst the hierarchy of kitchen jobs, the gatekeepers, the long-term staffers and newbies, Ruizpalacios spots the building blocks of allegory.

All of which helps raise the temperature on the much-forecast lunch rush sequence. It’s hard not think of Iñárritu’s Birdman––another story of dysfunctional group hustle in the shadow of Times Square––in an early scene as Estela navigates the kitchen’s corridors, and the film returns to that director’s realm in Ruizpalacios’ breathless, if obligatory, centerpiece: a roving long take during which a soda machine breaks down halfway through, flooding the floor in a few inches of liquid darkness, giving the waitress’ candy striped uniforms and twirling, dodging choreography the brief hint of a Busby Berkeley musical. We’ve perhaps grown too used to chaotic kitchen scenes, but their ubiquity doesn’t mean the framework can’t still surprise.

The question here is more to do with portioning than flavor or nourishment. Shot black-and-white by DP Juan Pablo Ramírez, Cocina‘s early scenes have a pleasing jazzy flow, a kind of sweet simulacrum of New York cinema tropes. The huge ensemble are also snare-drum tight, with Diaz providing the sweet to Briones’ bullying sour, a rare dramatic role for Fehr (who I don’t think I’ve seen since Resident Evil: The Final Chapter), and I particularly liked Olmos’ turn as the second-generation immigrant only occasionally masking his place on the food chain behind his barbed camaraderie. With his first film in the U.S., and his first with a significant amount of dialogue in English, Ruizpalacios should be credited for swinging for the fences, but including so many of the play’s supplementary vignettes (the encounter with the homeless man rings particularly false here) feels indulgent in a film that would have worked just fine without at least one or two of them. Same goes for all the politicking––even choirs have their limits. Ballsy stuff all the same.

La Cocina premiered at the 2024 Berlinale.

Grade: B

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