The City (La Ciudad)

Anyone looking for evidence that American independent filmmaking has reached a point of crisis—at least on the business end—needs no better proof than The City. After premiering to considerable acclaim at Sundance in 1999, it failed to secure distribution and disappeared, while many less ambitious, commercially tailored entrants went on to clog arthouses throughout the next year. Writer-director David Riker's debut adopts both the look and the mission of Italian neo-realist films (most immediately Paisan), which portrayed the dire straits and stacked odds of Europe's post-war working class through a ground-level aesthetic. The City's four stories—each centered on a photo studio that snaps portraits against the backdrop of an idealized American woodland—capture the travails of low-income (or, in some cases, no-income) immigrant Latinos living in New York. The first plotline sets the tone: A group of day laborers, desperately seeking employment, piles into the back of a truck at the promise of a $50 workday. At the work site, they discover a ruined building, a pile of bricks, and a promise of 15 cents for each brick they can salvage and clean. The changed deal forces them to compete with each other for a hard-earned pittance in the midst of dangerous conditions. The same sense of desperation infects each of Riker's stories, which cumulatively prove memorable in spite of individual missteps. Riker occasionally displays his limitations as a director, resorting too often to swelling music cues and the inevitable isolating overhead shot to underline his characters' alienation. But by the film's final (and best) entry, he seems to have shed these habits, and The City as a whole always remains grounded in an unmistakable truthfulness that's only strengthened by his non-professional actors' convincing performances. The City was shot over the course of five years, and its seams sometimes show, but independent films are hardly expected to be seamless, particularly when their power to move overwhelms their flaws.

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