Hate, despair rage in a 'City of Hope'

October 11, 1991|By Stephen Wigler

"City of Hope" is not a city of brotherly love: Blacks hate whites, who hate them back; they both hate the Hispanics, who return the favor; and the members of the working class fear and despise the poor because they fear the latter will steal what little they have.

They're all enmeshed in a corrupt system that resists change and that squeezes the decency out of otherwise good people.

Everyone's on the make in John Sayles' ambitious new movie about how we live now, and that means everyone's trying to take from someone else. Hudson City -- the fictitious New Jersey town portrayed here -- is much like all American cities. It's the sort of place that reduces one -- like the homeless mental case whom Sayles, with Dickensian artfulness, interpolates into so many scenes -- to desperate cries that "We need help!"

Sayles not only directed, but also wrote and edited "City of Hope," and he has produced a tour de force akin to Robert Altman's celebrated "Nashville": There are almost two dozen important characters and at least half a dozen significant plots.

The film is set in motion when Nick (Vincent Spano) walks off the job on a housing project being built by his contractor father, Joe (Tony Lo Bianco). Nick's a well-intentioned, if troubled, young man but he gets involved in grand theft. Joe tries to be a decent and honest man -- but, as a result of Nick's problems, he soon becomes involved in arson and murder. This is a world in which even so squeaky clean a character as Wynn (Joe Morton), a councilman who's the moral center of the movie, finds himself hard put to maintain the power he needs to do good and still hold on to the personal ethics he needs to be good.

The various plots touch upon all aspects of the urban nightmare: a mugging and senseless beating of a white victim by a pair of black kids; the racism and unnecessary roughness of cops where black youths are concerned; the greed of developers who unseat the poor; the professional agitators who pimp to the rage of the disenfranchised; and the corrupt city government that outlives all because it seduces all who try to change it.

The converging plots convey the film's message: The characters may hate each other because of their ethnic differences, but they remain -- however unwillingly -- involved in each other's lives. Robert Richardson's cinematography subtly emphasizes the way in which characters interact and affect one another. The camera frequently changes direction in mid scene as its subjects pass one another; characters in the background frequently come up to take the shot away; and space on the screen never seems sufficient to accommodate the humanity crowded there.

Because of its intricately interconnected plotting, its passionate interest in character and its panoramic, compassionate view of society, the name that kept coming to mind during "City of Hope" was that of Charles Dickens: Sayles also has an ability to look into the blight that's eating the heart out of our cities and to feel the pain it causes individual lives.

There are some faults in "City of Hope." The dialogue sometimes belabors the characters' (and society's) moral quandaries and the movie would have been better had it been shorter than its 150-minute length. But like Dickens' "Bleak House," Sayles' "City" shows us that however hard we try to free ourselves, we're caught in the institutional toils of human corruption. And it teaches us -- however much such corruption makes us ignore and even despise each other -- that we are, each and every one of us, our brothers' keepers.

'City of Hope'

Starring Vincent Spano, Joe Morton and Tony Lo Bianco.

Directed by John Sayles.

Released by Samuel Goldwyn.

Rated R.

*** 1/2

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