Berlinale 2024 | ‘La Cocina’ finds love and loneliness in New York kitchen

The vibrant energy and complex layers of multicultural New York come to life in Alonso Ruizpalacios’s latest film “La Cocina”, which premiered at the 2024 Berlin Film Festival. The Mexican-U.S. drama offers a frenzied portrayal of love, loneliness, and the chaos surrounding a group of migrant workers in a bustling Times Square restaurant.

As one of the 20 films vying for the prestigious Golden Bear, “La Cocina” is much more than a narrative about the culinary industry. It is an intimate examination of migrant life, using a black-and-white palette to illustrate the gritty reality of the American Dream through the lens of those on the fringes of society.

The story unfolds during a single lunch service, conveying the frenetic pace of the kitchen environment. A remarkable 10-minute continuous shot, the product of a week’s filming, gracefully captures the intricate ballet of cooks and servers from various backgrounds, including Mexican, Moroccan, Ecuadorian, and American origins. They navigate the controlled chaos with laughter and disputes, all while communicating in a blend of languages, showcasing the universal language of food and the shared experiences of toil and camaraderie.

Ruizpalacios drew inspiration from personal experience, recalling his time as a student when he worked in a restaurant which he describes as a “very un-food-porn” establishment. “I was more drawn to the collective experience…a band of brothers, but as soon as the rush starts, it’s everyone for himself,” said the director.

At a promotional event for the film, producer Ramiro Ruiz joined cast members Anna Diaz, Rooney Mara, Raul Briones, and Ruizpalacios himself. There, they expanded on the themes woven throughout the movie. The kitchen staff, though capable of culinary magic, operates under a cloud of deep insecurity, constantly facing the threat of deportation—a vulnerability callously leveraged by their employer.

Anna Diaz delivers an impassioned performance as Estela, a 19-year-old cook from Mexico who arrives in this frenetic setting with her own battles and a longing for connection. Diaz’s portrayal resonates personally, as she tearfully explains, “I get like this because my mother left her country years ago and is living in a country where she doesn’t know the language.”

The uncertainty and pressures of this migrant life breed a dangerous bravado and toxic masculinity among the workers. They navigate their lack of agency by asserting dominance in petty thefts of intimacy or derogatory comments, swinging between veneration and contempt for their peers.

Moreover, Raul Briones Carmona brings a unique perspective to the role of Pedro, a volatile cook unraveled by his destructive behavior. Tackling the role marks Carmona’s first since their transition to non-binary, offering a layered understanding of gender and identity within the intense and often hostile environment of the kitchen. Pedro’s failure to confront his vulnerabilities echoes a common tragedy within distressed communities: the reluctance to seek help or acknowledge personal struggles, often with catastrophic consequences.

“La Cocina” is not just a film about a kitchen; it’s a lens into the souls of people striving for survival and identity in a land far from home. The movie stands as a commentary on the harsh realities that many migrants face—the constant balancing act of pursuing dreams while maneuvering the obstacles of an indifferent society.

As the Berlinale continues, “La Cocina” stands out for its stark yet poignant narrative. It offers festival-goers a chance to reflect on the complexities of modern migration and the human stories simmering behind the façade of bustling city restaurants. It holds up a mirror to society, asking audiences to look beyond the plate and into the lives of those who prepare their meals, served with a side of dreams and desperation.

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