Road to reality

In the poetic tradition of the true-grit masters.


Father and daughter puppeteers in The City.
  • Father and daughter puppeteers in The City.

The earnest form of social protest found in Italian neorealist cinema long ago fell out of favor in American movies, but David Riker remains a true believer. His feature debut, The City (La Ciudad), shows why films such as Vittorio de Sica’s The Bicycle Thief (1948) continue to resonate in both hearts and minds.

Neorealism at its best captures with unvarnished simplicity the daily struggles of the disenfranchised, while connecting emotionally with audiences through a pure form of empathy. There’s poetry in Riker’s black-and-white images of New York City, a megalopolis which attracts Latin American immigrants looking for a glimpse of a better life. They exist on the fringes of the American dream, and in four haunting stories, writer-director-editor Riker illuminates a hidden world.

“Bricks” finds a group of day laborers taken from a busy street corner to the eerily quiet site of a partially demolished warehouse. Here, they chip off old mortar and stack the reclaimed bricks in neat piles. Their hard labor is underscored by a gently imploring letter from a lonely wife whose Honduran village is now home only to women and children. The bookend to this tale of worker exploitation is the equally wrenching “Seamstress,” where Ana (Silvia Goiz) desperately tries to collect long-overdue sweatshop wages so she can send money to her sick daughter.

“Home” chronicles the meeting of Francisco (Cipriano Garcia), newly arrived from Mexico, and Maria (Leticia Herrera), who feels like an indentured servant to the needs of her far-off family. In the lyrical “Puppeteer,” the only family a father (Jose Rabelo) cares about is his young daughter Dulce (Stephanie Viruet), who revels in his marvelous stories but doesn’t understand why she needs to start attending school.

The faces in La Ciudad are extraordinary: This cast of nonprofessionals demonstrates what’s lost when movies only focus on the conventionally beautiful. David Riker began his career as a photographer, and by looking deeper than the surface of these people’s lives — with genuine curiosity and no hint of condescension — he’s transformed the familiar into an exquisite piece of folk art.

Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward, Detroit), Monday at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.

Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. E-mail