The City Movie Review

The people of David Riker's The City (La Ciudad) are easily recognizable: poor destitute Mexican immigrants living in listless boroughs of New York City. And the director's careful, patient examination of their incessant, daily struggle to survive by taking any job they can get constitutes most of what the film is about.

The City is comprised of four short vignettes, all very poetic in their open-endedness. In the first one, Bricks, a group of Mexican laborers is taken to the field of nearly ruined buildings. They are left in the middle of nowhere and promised 50 dollars a day for cleaning up bricks. When the ruins of a demolished building collapse and kill one of the workers, the rest can't even explain to the ambulance where they are.

Home, the second story, offers another look at the immigrant dilemma. A young man, Francisco, while searching for his distant relatives, stumbles into a party and ponders about his choice of coming to America to a woman he meets. He doesn't know anyone in the city and all his possessions fit in one bag he carries with him. The moment of comfort he obtains by sharing his sorrows with a woman from his native town in Mexico is fleeting -- he is lost on his way from a grocery store back to her apartment.

The protagonist of The Puppeteer is a loving father, who lives with his daughter in a car and survives by performing puppet shows to the local kids in the neighborhood. They watch the moon at night while the father reads fairy tales to his daughter, hoping that some day she will be able to go to school with the other kids. She won't, as it turns out, because he can't provide a receipt proving that his daughter lives in the city.

The final and the most desolate is the story of Seamstress, a woman who comes to America to earn money for the family she left behind. She is devastated to find out that her daughter is sick, but, as in the previous three tales, her situation is hopeless: The sweatshop owners keep promising to pay, but it's obvious that the woman, as well as the other desperate workers, will not get a cent for their labor.

The stories of this spare, reserved documentary-like black-and-white film give face to the faceless, to those aspects of urban and, most importantly, human experience we usually avert our eyes from. Riker turns to traditions of Italian Neorealism, a genre whose premise was to bring real people and contemporary social problems into focus. Like most films of that era, The City expresses no hopes for deep social change and is thus an incredibly inert film. It is authentic, somber and tragic, and the poverty it depicts could have been captured anywhere in the world. The fatalism that pervades the lives of Riker's characters calls for a depressing conclusion: that nothing will ever change for these people. When a seamstress demands to be paid, other workers stop working and stare at her breakdown in the agonizing silence. Not being paid for weeks, without any security in their lives, will they express solidarity with her? Probably not.

David Riker does nothing to pull your heartstrings, which is why the film is so honest and devastating. But it is the absence of any kind of inner force in the film that disturbs me more than its morbid subject matter. I remember John Huston's Fat City, about two fighters from Stockton: one is aging and paunchy, who had his moment of glory but whose next stop is Skid Row; his young counterpart has chosen the same fate, despite the living lesson before his eyes. Stockton is not New York -- no one in their right mind will ever go there, and Fat City isn't about immigrants, but about failure and poverty. It is a brutal and bleak picture, but the way Huston depicts his characters is dramatically different from Riker: It is a film about people who are beaten before they start, but who never stop fighting. Their despair has the smell of liquor, unmade beds, and cheap hotels, but they obstinately bounce back and refuse to take defeat for granted. It is perhaps the passivity of La Ciudad, both in content and style, that makes this film a bittersweet disappointment.

Aka La Ciudad.

Now get back to work.


Comments

The City Rating

" OK "

Rating: NR, 1998

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