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Austin Chronicle The City (La Ciudad)

By Marjorie Baumgarten

DECEMBER 13, 1999: 

D: David Riker; with Richardo Cuevas, Cipriano Garcia, Leticia Herrera, Jose Rabelo, Stephanie Viruet, Silvia Goiz. (Not Rated, 88 min.)

This much-heralded movie has been the pride of the 1999 film festival circuit, winning top prizes at the Taos Talking Pictures Festival and South by Southwest, among others. Photographed in dramatic black-and-white tones, the film presents a collection of four separate stories that all depict the heartbreaking plight of recent Latino immigrants in New York City. The bleak prospects and realities of these impoverished souls are shown in stark relief against the anonymity and despair caused by life in the big city. Created over the course of several years, The City was developed with the assistance of members of the immigrant community it portrays, and Riker also cast the film with nonprofessional actors as well. At times, this strategy lends a sweet honesty to the proceedings, somewhat in the vein of the Italian neorealist classics. But the beauty of this stark simplicity is consistently undercut by the studied perfection of the photographic images, the editorial use of lighting and camera angles, and the obvious swell of music that accompanies all the scenes. We are constantly being told what to think: These people are innocent victims of the city, the economic system, the political structure, and ruthless opportunists.

Even if we agree with the movie's belief system, it allows no room for viewers to reach their conclusions independently. And by wearing its opinions on its sleeve, the film opens itself up to questions of its own authenticity: To what extent were these "non-actors" less exploited by their participation in this low-budget indie than by their ill-paid work in the illegal sweatshops and day labor sites.

Certainly, there is more compassion evident in Riker's project, but whether the film has improved the lives of these immigrants in any appreciable way is a subject not brought up as Riker traveled the country accepting his festival awards. The questions raised by The City are not unique to this movie alone; they are questions that should accompany any sociopolitically minded work. Riker's film showcases problems in a forceful and involving way, making use of the medium to drive home his points. But these flourishes make it his show all the way, and the immigrant problems take a backseat to the director's starring role.

2.5 Stars

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