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La Cocina Film Review: Tense day at work

Rooney Mara and Raúl Briones Carmona stand with their heads against each other in the film La Cocina

Alonso Ruizpalacios’ La Cocina offers us an open-doors day in an excruciatingly stressful restaurant kitchen but captures it with character and technique.

An assortment of cultures and ethnicities are tossed together to create the steaming pot of chaos that is La Cocina, yet another riveting addition to the rapidly ripening subgenre of kitchen dramas in recent years. 

Writer-director Alonso Ruizpalacios loosely adapts the screenplay from the 1957 play “The Kitchen” into a nightmarish, nerve-racking experience for lovers of the big screen, transporting us amid what I consider one of the most stressful work environments in existence: a Manhattan restaurant kitchen. We follow several of the immigrant staff members throughout their busy shift, and we get acquainted with their struggles behind closed kitchen doors. On the forefront is Pedro (Raúl Briones), cocky, idealistic, and in love with one of the waitresses, Julia (Rooney Mara).

La Cocina walks a fine line of believability throughout its runtime. At some points, it’s incredibly true to reality, to the point where I see my own service job experience reflected back to me, but there are other moments when I don’t trust the narrative at all.

For the most part, the dialogue exchanges are full of wit, with a clever sense of tragi-comedic timing and pacing. For better or worse, the theatricality of the source material re-surfaces when characters decide to break away into their elaborate, at times unnecessarily long tangents about the state of the world, racial conflicts, supernatural fables, etc. Yet, they don’t strike any emotional chords as hard as they would on a stage.

It’s inevitable to cross into the overly theatrical with such a script, adapted from a literal play, but the camera adds something truly special here. Alonso Ruizpalacios utilizes its creativity to enhance the narrative immensely through its visuals. 

La Cocina is rich in tasteful black-and-white imagery and beautiful framing choices. There are quite a few technical changes in the way the movie is shot throughout, but the cinematography always feels purposeful. The changes are bold, with the intention of signifying a specific transition into the next act or an emotional shift. 

Except for the anxiously shaky one take during lunch rush at The Grill, most of the film is displayed in static frames within the claustrophobic 4:3 aspect ratio until the screen expands to the wide 16:9, giving the characters room to breathe when they make it to the outside of the restaurant on their lunch break. The only two glimpses of color we get are very deliberately incorporated, even down to the psychology behind the colors themselves: the hazy, comforting blue and the financially greedy green.

Rooney Mara and Raúl Briones Carmona stand with their heads against each other in the film La Cocina
A still from La Cocina, now at the 2024 Berlin Film Festival. (© Juan Pablo Ramírez / Filmadora, Berlinale)

The chemistry between our lead characters, Pedro and Julia, is not always easy to get behind because of how exclusively it tries to bet on Pedro’s supposed enamoring charm that Julia can’t help but fall for. There aren’t many redeemable qualities in Pedro. I wanted to root for him more than I did, which makes it hard to understand where Julia’s attachment stems from and their already vague enough feelings for one another. That could supposedly be the aim, with Julia being the only one that’s charmed by him while he appears unlikable to everyone else, but that shouldn’t translate as far into the audience as it does. It isn’t helpful for their relationship’s plausibility, yet it’s the catalyst for the entire story.

From the get-go, the story builds its core on top of an unstable foundation. That all emerges on the surface when we hit the third act, and what could’ve been a slam-dunk finale for dessert just turns into a climactic sequence of events to close off the character arcs. The explosive conclusion is effective, but it doesn’t leave you with enough to chew on in terms of the social commentary on immigrant labor that La Cocina was building up to for its first 2 hours.

La Cocina premiered at the 2024 Berlin Film Festival. Read our Berlin Film Festival reviews and our list of 20 films to watch at the Berlin Film Festival!

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