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Immigrants' hope turns to hardship in gritty 'City'

TORONTO Sometimes in the middle of the hustle and hype, you find a little film that exists simply because it needs to. Here at the Toronto Film Festival, the hotel lobbies are jammed with celebs wearing the T-shirts and baseball caps of one another's movies. But there is nothing to advertise "The City," not even a free lead pencil with the title printed on it, yet here is a movie to treasure.

It tells four stories about recently arrived illegal immigrants in New York City. They come from Mexico and farther south in Latin America, and they carry the hopes of their families at home that they will send back money from the promised land. It doesn't work that way.

Although the TV news and music videos have drilled us to think of Latin Americans in terms of flash and style, music and sometimes drugs, the characters in this movie come from an entirely different world. They are hardworking people, men mostly, who come from a world where they were respected. After all, anyone who goes to the trouble of becoming an illegal immigrant is, by definition, one of the most confident and ambitious citizens in his home community. The timid would be afraid to try.

New York, we see, offers little. Men line the streets hoping to be hired as day laborers, and the cops threaten to sweep them away - for the crime of wanting to work. They're paid 15 cents apiece to scrape and hammer the mortar off old bricks. In another story, a woman gets a job in a garment sweatshop, where piecework workers are hired and fired at whim. A man lives in his car and supports himself with a portable Punch and Judy show; he wants to enroll his daughter in school, which is their legal right, but because he has no permanent address, no school will have her. And in a more hopeful story, a young man meets a woman and they fall in love - but the city defeats them after all.

"The City (La Ciudad)" was written and directed by David Riker, who comes out of the New York University Film School; fellow graduates such as Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese also have been interested in the streets. It was photographed by Harlan Bosmajian, whose black-and-white work is realistic and poetic. One is reminded of "The Bicycle Thief."

It is a rare autumn that does not bring at least one movie about British royalty. Almost all nations have two histories - their own and England's. The prize entry this fall is obviously "Elizabeth," which premiered here this week and immediately inspired Oscar talk for Cate Blanchett's performance as Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen.

We see her first as a tall, regal young girl with flowing red hair, who laughs and plays and is dangerously naive about the intrigues at court. Her half-sister Mary, a Catholic, is advised to have Elizabeth, a Protestant, put to death. But Mary dallies and dies, and Elizabeth ascends to a throne that controls no treasury, no army and a pitiful navy. The French conspire with her rival Mary of Guise in Scotland to overthrow her, but she grows in office and eventually gives her name to the greatest age in British history.

Blanchett deserves the praise she is getting, and her co-stars include Geoffrey Rush and Richard Attenborough. But the appeal of the movie is as much in its look and feel as in its performances.

Director Shekhar Kapur ("Bandit Queen") and cinematographer Remi Adefarasin remind us that the Elizabethan Age was a time of gloomy, damp dwellings and earthy simplicity, where shadows and distances could conceal conspiracies.

Rarely has a time and place added so much to a royal story.

The loudest buzz at Toronto, as it was at Telluride and last May at Cannes, is all about "Happiness," the film by Todd Solondz that cannot be discussed without the word "controversial" somewhere in the same sentence. I've written about it before. I have no idea how the film, which is about people whose dysfunctions range from the depraved to the criminal to the merely pathetic, will be received by audiences. But festivalgoers are intrigued because they don't know what to make of it; it fits no known category.

It's not a film festival unless you see movies by accident. I went to what I thought was a screening for "Clay Pigeons," with Vince Vaughn and Janeane Garofalo in a rough Montana story, and when the lights went down, I found myself watching "Fire Eater," from Finland, about children who become fire eaters in the circus after being left behind by a mother who leaves with the Nazis. And then I walked out of a movie with a painfully shrill soundtrack and was talked into the theater next door by a persuasive publicist who was sure I should see "Fated Vocations," perhaps the least commercial title of the year, about Vietnamese singers. I admired both films, although I am not sure they will be opening soon in a theater near you.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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