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Alonso Ruizpalacios Vies for a Golden Bear with his Kitchen Drama ‘La Cocina’ With Rooney Mara


Inspired by Arnold Wesker’s 1959 stage play, “The Kitchen,” Alonso Ruizpalacios’ “La Cocina” dives deep into the bowels of the industrial-size kitchen of a restaurant in New York City’s Times Square where food is churned out to serve throngs of diners, mostly tourists.

For Ruizpalacios, whose feature debut, “Güeros,” won the best first feature award at the Berlinale nearly 10 years ago, “La Cocina” (“The Kitchen”) is basically an anti-food-porn movie. “I wanted to show the other side of the food industry where expediency is more important than the quality of the food. It’s a metaphor for corporate capitalism,” he says.

The story takes place at the fictional The Grill in Manhattan, where cash has gone missing from the register. All the undocumented cooks, hailing from a diversity of countries, are placed under scrutiny, particularly Pedro (Raúl Briones), who is already on the line for his troublemaking.

Pedro is also in love with Julia (Rooney Mara), an American waitress who’s not ready for a serious relationship. The Grill’s owner, Rashid, has promised to help Pedro with his legal papers. However, Pedro’s world shatters when an unexpected revelation about Julia comes to light.

To prepare his cast for the drama, with interiors shot in Mexico City’s venerable Churubusco studios, Ruizpalacios organized cooking lessons and long improv-heavy rehearsals for at least three weeks before the shoot. He also gave each of his cast members a copy of “Kitchen Confidential,” the late Anthony Bourdain’s tell-all seminal book about the goings-on in restaurant kitchens.

“Now I’ve learned the art of ordering in restaurants,” says Briones. “The book helped me a lot in comprehending the role of the chef, understanding the meticulous defense of their tools — the knife, the cutting board, etc. Nothing can be taken away, as it risks one’s employment.”

Mara notes, “Alonso did this really long rehearsal process, like a kitchen boot camp for all the chefs and waitresses; it was an amazing experience,” adding that the director focused on amping up the communal experience.

“When I started writing the screenplay, I always had Rooney in the back of my mind. She has a special intensity; she says a lot without saying a word,” says Ruizpalacios, who adds that her character had to be someone who would ground Briones’ Pedro, who was always on edge.

“Alonso is an incredibly musical director. The film is not just filled with music, but also with the meticulous sound mixing crafted by our colleagues. Their work on the sound, the various voices, accents and languages, all serve to enhance the movie’s artistic commentary,” notes Briones, who also praised Mara, who he found exceedingly generous especially as he had not really learned to speak English until he took on this role. “Well, mastering English isn’t as challenging as one might think. However, what proved to be trickier was acting in English,” he says.

According to Ruizpalacios, one of the most challenging scenes was a 14-minute single take during the rush hour, which was “like a complex choreography, like a battle scene,” he relates.

“I think the long take was really challenging for everyone, but it was so much fun and exhilarating,” says Mara.

In Ruizpalacios’ director’s statement, he says: “Though one might be tempted to look at it solely as a film about immigration, the real emphasis is elsewhere. Here, the characters’ condition of being illegal immigrants is just that: a condition, a circumstance, a given. But what they’re really struggling with is to find a sense of self, of community and brotherhood in the midst of hard labor.

“Work is the other main theme: the struggle for the survival of the soul amidst the unstoppable machinery of global capitalism. As Pedro, the film’s protagonist puts it, when asked to retell his dream: ‘You can’t dream in a kitchen.’”