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Berlinale Bloggers 2024
A Kitchen Through the Eyes of Migrant Workers

Julia (Rooney Mara) and Pedro (Raúl Briones Carmona) in the film "La Cocina". Director: Alonso Ruizpalacios
Julia (Rooney Mara) and Pedro (Raúl Briones Carmona) in the film "La Cocina" directed by Alonso Ruizpalacios. | Photo (detail): © Juan Pablo Ramírez / Filmadora

“The Greell?”
“The Grill.”

The kitchen can be a noisy and high-pressure environment, where the sounds of orders being printed clash with the clangs of spatulas hitting pans, and a domineering head chef barks out commands – "Chop, chop!" – urging everyone to keep moving.

In recent years, we have seen the likes of many restaurants “behind-the-scenes” in films such as Hunger (2023), The Bear (2022), and The Menu (2022). In La Cocina, part of the 74th Berlinale competition, it’s not the dynamic of superiors and subordinates that brings an atmosphere of tension, but the relations between workers hailing from starkly diverse backgrounds.

A Glimpse of New York City Behind the Scenes

La Cocina, a feature film from Mexico and the United States, opens with Estela (Anna Diaz), a young Mexican immigrant woman, embarking on a journey across the sea to seek employment. Armed with determination, despite not being able to speak English, Estela arrives in New York City. Carrying a sprig of cilantro entrusted by her family in tow, she only has an address written on a piece of paper and a name to rely on: “Pedro.”

Shot in black and white, the film captures fleeting, quickly-moving images. Portraying a far-from-glamourous Times Square, the city is seen through the lens of an immigrant worker: noisy, unwelcoming, and disorienting.

Language Dynamics and Power Relations

Through Estela, we meet a cast of characters: Pedro, Estela's cousin and also an immigrant, Julia (Rooney Mara), a waitress and Pedro's lover, and other workers – chefs, waiters, restaurant managers,  and owners – at a restaurant called The Grill.

La Cocina intentionally explores the dynamics of interaction between its characters, examining the relationships between immigrants and the Americans. How do those who struggle with English perceive those who speak the language fluently and accent-free? Conversely, how do the natives view the newcomers? And, even more layered, how do immigrant men view women from their own countries, compared to white women, whom they call "gringos"? This is where power relations are revealed.

Behind the scenes, La Cocina exposes not only the power dynamics between restaurant owners and employees but also the power struggles among the workers themselves. It paints a harsh depiction of reality, at the same time offering a fresh perspective among the proliferation of films about restaurants and kitchens. As one worker in the film says, "He had it with him, ’til the end of his life. A darkness, like a scar."