A heartbreaking look at the abuses heaped on Latino laborers in New York City, David Riker’s “The City” can take its place beside such postwar neo-realist classics as Rossellini’s “Paisan” and Bunuel’s “Los Olvidados.” The film, in B&W and Spanish (with English subtitles), poses major marketing challenges, even in Miami, Los Angeles and other urban areas with large Spanish-speaking populations. But inevitable festival kudos and glowing reviews should help get the word out about this plaintive, unremitting call for social change. Arthouse bookings, followed by cable and PBS airings, are a must.
The picture, which began life as a student Oscar winner, was shot piecemeal over a six-year stretch. Writer-editor-helmer Riker’s background is in still photography and docs (“Roxbury, USA”), which helps explain his keen eye for detail and endless store of outrage over South and Central American immigrants who are treated as slave labor on these shores and then, quite literally, are forgotten to death.
As in “Paisan,” street-level vignettes unfold as separate episodes, and employ mostly non-actors and ravaged tenements that could very well be in a Herzegovina war zone. Omnibus is tied together by a Queens photo studio, a sort of crossroads where immigrants symbolically have their identities affirmed in ID, wedding and First Communion snaps.
First episode, titled “Bricks,” follows a crew of desperate-for-work immigrants to the site of what used to be a Hoboken housing complex. They toil, argue and dream of loved ones back home, until one young man (Fernando Reyes) is buried under an avalanche of bricks. The Manhattan skyline, omnipresent through the haze, mocks the men as they look in vain for the contractor who brought them to God knows where.
Episode No. 2, “Home,” is more conventional, though no less ironic. Francisco (Cipriano Garcia), recently arrived from Mexico, wanders into a Sweet 16 party when he can’t find his uncle. He goes home with a girl (Leticia Herrera) who is from his village. The next day, elated to have found a kindred spirit, Francisco goes to the corner market to shop for breakfast. On the way back, he becomes hopelessly lost in a maze of concrete canyons.
Third episode, “The Puppeteer,” was shot in 1992 and earned Riker a student Academy Award and DGA honors. It’s lyrical in the style of the young Fellini (“La Strada” comes to mind), and stars Cuba’s Jose Rabelo as Luis, a consumptive street performer concerned for the welfare of his 7-year-old daughter (Stephanie Viruet). Against his better judgment, Luis takes the child to a nearby elementary school. The school turns them away because they lack an electricity receipt as proof of residency.
The closer, “Seamstress,” is the most ambitious and politically damning. Silvia Goiz plays a garment factory worker who discovers that her child, back home in Mexico, is sick and in need of an operation. Though friends offer the little they have (no one has been paid in weeks), it’s not enough. Desperate, the seamstress goes to a cousin who owes her money and then takes on the (stereotypically) oblivious Korean sweatshop manager.
There’s a hint of an upbeat resolution in this segment, but don’t expect “Norma Rae”-type grandstanding. Riker is too serious an observer; he refuses to soften or compromise his vision for crowd-pleasing catharsis.
The common theme here, of course, is abject neglect: These newcomers to our shores are cut off from their culture and their families and, in each scenario, are treated as if they were invisible. “The pain you go through in this country,” groans one of the brickyard laborers in a common plaint. “They treat us like animals.”
While Riker has gotten amazing performances from his mostly non-pro cast, Goiz as the increasingly outraged seamstress and Cuban actor Rabelo as the worn-down puppeteer make a deeper impression than others who are appropriately limned as faces in a crowd. Viruet, the little girl, is another exception: She has a haunting, faraway look guaranteed to melt the most cynical heart.
If there’s a problem with this film, it’s the unrelenting hopelessness, underscored throughout by Tony Adzinikolov’s superb, dirge-like score. Latino activists are likely to carp that pic is so pessimistic it will have audiences throwing up their arms, asking, “What’s the use?” This contingent will demand equal time for the survivors, the nonvictims who refuse to stack bricks.