Rulo is a middle-aged Argentinean with a potbelly and a heavy nicotine habit. As played by Luis Margani, who’s like a Latin Jean Gabin, he’s generous, sloppy, and resourceful—an all-around good guy. In his youth, Rulo tasted fame as the bass player with a group that had a hit single. Today, he works at a construction site; it’s heavy, dangerous work, but the pay is decent, and Rulo has a mother and a grown son to support. That he could never afford to live in the high-rises he builds doesn’t lessen his enthusiasm for the job.
Pablo Trapero’s Crane World is, largely, a character study of Rulo, shot in episodic, vérité style. We follow him around Buenos Aires as he drives his failing car to and from work. We hang out in his grimy, cluttered apartment, where he makes indoor barbecue for his friends, works on his car motor, argues with his son, and on most nights, falls asleep alone in front of the TV. Rulo is also dating the proprietor of the local sandwich shop, who remembers him as a star from his club days.
An oral personality, he organizes his social interactions around food and he’s never without a cigarette dangling from his lips. Rulo’s pleasures have a downside. A physical exam reveals enough health problems to make him an insurance risk and he’s laid off the very day that he’s scheduled to take over the operation of a 300-meter crane. Unable to get another construction job in Buenos Aires, he’s forced to travel a thousand miles south to Patagonia, where he’s been promised work on a site in the desert. Crane World depicts two faces of Argentina: the burgeoning city, where the benefits of economic expansion barely trickle down to most of its population, and the daunting countryside, where development is as sporadic as in the Third World. When Rulo’s friends drive down for a visit, they wind up at the local recreation spot: a barren, dusty slope at the edge of a dried-up lake.
From the worn-out sedans on the street to the old movies on Rulo’s cable-free television set (he couldn’t get his MTV even if he wanted), this is a country where modernization seems barely to have progressed since the end of World War II. In keeping with that, Trapero shot Crane World on black-and-white stock that looks as if it had been light-struck and gone brownish with age. To call it sepia would imply a glamour that’s conspicuously absent. Crane World isn’t a beautiful film, but it’s remarkable for the tenderness and tenacity it shares with its memorable protagonist.
Crane World premiered in this year’s “New Directors,” a series that began without much promise but seems to have saved many of its best entries for its closing days. Like Crane World, Human Resources (April 5 and 6), by the French filmmaker Laurent Cantet, is set in a working-class milieu in which the oldest and most loyal employees are often in for the biggest shocks when the pink slips are distributed. The film’s protagonist, Frank, discovers that management at a local factory—where his father is a longtime employee—is using the questionnaire Frank developed in his human resources class to justify their downsizing plan; Frank’s father is among the workers to be laid off. Frank quits his summer internship at the factory and becomes a union activist, much to his father’s dismay. The film smartly couples class struggle with oedipal struggle without betraying the complexity of either. With the exception of Jalil Lespert, who plays Frank, the cast is made up entirely of nonprofessionals and the main location was a real factory. The combination of documentary detail with a taut, politically pointed narrative results in one of the most interesting films of the new French cinema.
No one in Ratcatcher (April 7 and 9) has a job except the garbage collectors, who are all out on strike. Lynne Ramsay’s first feature is a horrific depiction of growing up poor in Glasgow; a stagnant pond serves as a playground and kids get their kicks by beating rats to death. Ten-year-old James is horsing around in the pond with his friend Ryan when Ryan goes underwater and doesn’t come up. James panics and runs away, and his guilty secret further darkens an already bleak life. A blend of neorealism and nightmarishly poetic imagery, Ratcatcher bears comparison with Buñuel’s similarly harrowing Los Olvidados. (Subtitles were added after the Glasgow dialect proved impenetrable for audiences at the film’s Cannes premiere.)
In Josh Aronson and Roger Weisberg’s documentary Sound and Fury (April 8 and 9), two brothers and their wives make opposite decisions about whether or not to give their deaf children cochlear implants. The film, which is almost as much about children’s rights, identity politics, and fears and fantasies about advanced technology as it is about deafness, is intellectually provocative and emotionally involving without being exploitative.
Slated for a June release, Alison Maclean’s Jesus’ Son (April 7 and 8), adapted from Denis Johnson’s short-story collection, is imprinted with the particular brand of gender-driven alienation that the director brought to her short Kitchen Sink and her first feature, Crush. Billy Crudup plays the junkie savior who eventually transcends his paranoid delusions of grandeur. Jesus’ Son suffers from its episodic structure, but its outsider vision of America hits home in fractious ways.
A subdued remake of his first feature, Girls Town, Jim McKay’s Our Song (April 5 and 6) is about one summer in the lives of three Brooklyn public high school teenagers, best friends who will soon go their separate ways, their paths determined by their attitudes about school, family, and most crucially, single motherhood. The film only takes off when the real-life high school band that inspired the narrative—the Jackie Robinson Steppers Marching Band—is on the screen.
When Rob (John Cusack), the proprietor of a Chicago record store specializing in used and rare rock vinyl, is abandoned by his girlfriend, he tries to work off his despair by rearranging his record collection—not alphabetically or chronologically, but autobiographically. He also starts compulsively talking to the camera about his many failed romances, as if the viewer were his shrink. Shrinks, however, are well-paid to listen to the same litany of despair over and over; viewers hand over their 10 bucks because they hope for something fresh and exciting.
Or maybe not. Some viewers—dedicated Woody Allen fans, for example—want to be confirmed in what they’ve already figured out about their own lives. Stephen Frears’s High Fidelity, adapted from Nick Hornby’s popular novel and transposed with minimal upset from blue-collar England to blue-collar Chicago, is a Woody Allen film for youngish white males who fetishize rock music and its many memorabilia and have commitment problems when flesh-and-blood women, as opposed to women in song lyrics, are involved. It may seem perverse to fault a movie for being too accurate, but when surface accuracy is coupled with tunnel vision about self and society the result is a wee bit irritating. High Fidelity may be the only music film since 1990 not to acknowledge the existence of rap or hip-hop. That the characters are part of an isolationist subculture (veneration for Marvin Gaye notwithstanding) is what makes the film seem so painfully like real life. That the film doesn’t put this isolationism in perspective is what makes it dismissible.