(1999), Billie Young
New American Destinies: A Reader in Contemporary Asian and Latino Immigration (1996) Darrell Y. Hamamoto (Editor)
Writer-director David Riker, in his extraordinary debut feature, The City, has created a work of film art that isn’t in the least "artsy" because it is so deeply felt and so disciplined in its understated and unsentimentalized depiction of real lives.
With a cast made up almost exclusively of nonactors, Riker explores the experience of Latin American immigrants in New York. In four separate vignettes, bridged by brief scenes of a photographer shooting portraits of the principals in each story, Riker shows the exploitation of immigrant workers (men scrambling for work in a curbside labor market, women in a garment industry sweatshop that fails to pay its employees), the cruelty of government red tape (a homeless father who isn’t permitted to enroll his daughter in school because he lacks a cancelled rent check proving he is a resident), the loneliness of immigrants separated from families back home, connected only by letters more often than not reporting family problems – illness or a flood washing away a home.
Described that way, the film might sound like a political tract or yet another celluloid discourse on man’s inhumanity to man. It is neither, because Riker is less interested in the oppressors than he is in the humble dignity of these vulnerable people struggling to gain a foothold in a foreign land. He demonstrates, without preaching, their profoundly powerful family bonds and their sense of community when crises arise.
Riker’s background as a photographer is evident in every beautifully composed black-and-white frame of this visually elegant work. He elicits unaffected, deeply affecting performances from his mostly nonprofessional cast.An original score by Tony Adzinikolov, with a traditional orchestral sound in a minor key, underlines (without obtrusiveness) the sadness, the mood of melancholy which saturates the film.
Each of the four stories ends on an unresolved note (a strategy that Riker uses with far more finesse than John Sayles did in Limbo). The first and natural response is to wonder what happened next to these characters, how their situations resolved. Riker’s deliberate ambiguity leads to the understanding that, in a broader sense, there is no resolution for these people: the misery we have seen is part of the texture of their lives. While one or another might manage to find a way to an easier life, most won’t, and what has happened to them will likely be the experience of generations of immigrants to come.
Another recent movie, Angela’s Ashes, took a successful memoir about poor and displaced people, blew it up into a bloated, romanticized, overproduced two-and-a half-hour Hollywood extravaganza, and utterly lost its soul in translation to the screen. In contrast, with The City, a low-budget, low-tech, 88 minute film, Riker, with impeccable artistry, succeeds in delivering compassionate understanding and a deeply moving, insightful portrayal of lives lived at the edge of survival.