The young North Carolina-born director Ramin Bahrani, in Man Push Cart and now Chop Shop, steeps his audience squarely in society's impoverished underbelly. One of the few visual cues that the setting for Chop Shop is a major American city, and not a random Third World slum, is the periodic glimpse of New York City's Shea Stadium, affixed with the ironic placard that this is a place where one can "Make Dreams Happen."
Otherwise, the tableau of Willet's Point, Queens, is that of an insular netherworld, an alleyway of auto-repair shops and junkyards devoid of sidewalks, sewers or even official residents. Like the refuse that coagulates every time rain floods the corridor, the so-called "Iron Triangle" is the depositing point for the sediment of the economy. Commerce in the Iron Triangle is based on scrap, vice and stolen merchandise; however, its denizens are not depraved lowlifes but a collage of immigrants and indigents shackled to a hardscrabble subsistence.
In this meager milieu, we meet Alejandro, or "Ale" (Alejandro Polanco), a 12-year-old Latino street orphan living in a shanty above the garage where he works when not hustling for a buck by peddling chocolate bars, bootleg DVDs or stolen hubcaps. Ale's reunion with his 16-year-old sister, Isamar (Isamar Gonzales), spurs his dream of saving the $4,500 needed to buy a used food truck in hopes of starting his own mobile vending business. His relationship with Isamar grows complicated when he learns that she is moonlighting as a prostitute. While Ale's attitude toward his sister becomes more paternalistic, he rationalizes confiscating her earnings as necessary for the one vehicle that could deliver them some measure of independence.
Chop Shop's depiction of a coming-of-age immigrant story also involving sibling relationships set in a New York City ghetto—not to mention the tactic of giving characters the same first names as the amateur actors playing them—is evocative of Peter Sollet's Raising Victor Vargas. The principal difference—among many—between the two films is a matter of perspective and presentation. While Victor Vargas was, for all its realistic detail, clearly a nostalgic coming-of-age story, Bahrani's Neorealist filmmaking style is so authentic it could be mistaken at times for a vérité documentary. The rapport between Ale and his sister, his working-class employers and acquaintances, and his best friend Carlos (Carlos Zapata) is laced with streetwise lingo and muted affection.
The film's greatest strength, however, is also its most notable shortcoming. Chop Shop is so deeply contemplative and unvarnished that it risks redundancy even with a succinct 84-minute running time. Flirtations with narrative embellishment quickly evaporate, such as when Carlos discovers the hideaway for Ale's cash stash, or when Ale purse-snatches outside the U.S. Open tennis tournament. Still, the plot is propelled not by elaborate twists and turning points but by the genuine struggle to surmount a suffocating everyday inertia wrought by life's hard circumstances.
For all of his attention to realistic detail, Bahrani also displays a considerable gift for visual poetry. We see, for instance, a neighborhood game in which kids attract pigeons with feed and then scare them away, which seems to be a symbol for the elusive nature of the American Dream. Eventually, however, the pigeons' flight signifies the equally elusive dream of escape. In another metaphor, Chop Shop's opening depicts a gathering of day laborers waiting for an employer to drive by and handpick them for work. The film lays bare a near-dystopian America that, like the titular scrap yard, treats its inhabitants like disassembled spare parts. —Neil Morris
Chop Shop opens Friday at Chelsea Theater.
The new documentary about the looting of art during World War II carries the title The Rape of Europa. The classical allusion seems odd, but if one considers it carefully, the title becomes enigmatic and more appropriate: In Greek mythology, Europa was a Phoenician princess carried off by Zeus, who'd assumed the form of a bull. Thus, the founding myth of the continent is based on what we today consider a crime. While there is much in the engrossing film The Rape of Europa that is unambiguously appalling, the self-consciously classical title also suggests historical ironies that go beyond the murderous confines of the 12 years of the Third Reich.
The film begins with the 2006 sale of "Gold Portrait," Gustav Klimt's magnificent 1907 rendering of a wealthy woman and arts patron, to billionaire cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder for the price of $135 million, the highest price ever paid for a painting. Earlier that year, a panel of Austrian judges had awarded that painting to Maria Altmann, a descendant of the painting's original owner (and also of the portrait subject), from whom the painting was stolen by Nazis in 1938.
If they hadn't been genocidal criminals, one could be touched by the Nazi leaders' enthusiasm for art. Hermann Goering was a particularly enthusiastic collector/ thief, and the film shows us examples of Adolf Hitler's youthful painting—unimpressive, lifeless but competently drafted cityscapes. The film is generally content to dismiss their artistic pretensions as that of uncouth, grasping buffoons, but one wishes that more time had been spent on why culture, if a keenly reactionary kind, was so important to them. (The political failures of George W. Bush notwithstanding, one does suspect it is not such a bad thing to have leaders with no interest in art.)
We learn the startling extent of Hitler's obsession with planning what would have been the world's greatest repository of art—a massive facility to be situated in his provincial Austrian hometown of Linz, a project Hitler fussed over right to the end. As the Wehrmacht rampaged across Europe, Nazi cultural minions drew up a secret list of European art treasures, a kind of catalog from which Hitler could order up his paintings and sculptures. By war's end, according to the film, the Nazis had looted approximately 20 percent of Europe's art treasures, and much of it was found hidden in remote Alpine castles—and even a mineshaft. Much of the art has been recovered, some is known to have been destroyed, and the art world waits for the inevitable reemergence of the rest (in 2000, the North Carolina Museum of Art returned a painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder that, unbeknownst to the institution, had been stolen by Nazis).
Although the villains loom large, this is a tale of many heroes, including the workers at the great European museums—the Louvre, the Hermitage and the museums of Florence, for starters, who executed elaborate art evacuation and preservation plans in advance of the German invasions. Among the individual heroes was Rose Valland, an unassuming middle-aged clerk at the Louvre who, after the Nazis took over the museum, crept about taking detailed notes on looted artworks, never letting on to the occupiers that she spoke German.
While blame for the destruction and theft of Europe's artistic heritage must be set at the feet of the Nazis, the film also makes it clear that all sides contributed to the destruction, including one of the saddest episodes, the Allied decision to bomb the sixth-century Monte Cassino monastery, used by Axis forces as cover during the brutal battle for the Italian peninsula. As one veteran of the campaign, an Asian-American, observes, considerations of art and history were profane and irrelevant to soldiers whose lives were at risk. Art may be the finest product of civilization, but civilized societies are themselves almost invariably achieved with the assistance of what Shakespeare's Richard III called "grim-visag'd war." And when civilization fails to sustain itself, the loss of cultural treasures could be seen as fitting punishment.
With dulcet narration by Joan Allen, The Rape of Europa is a well-told story, with excellent interviews and fascinating, frequently horrific archival footage. Still, the film quietly glosses over glaring ironies. There's a white-knuckled account of Louvre workers carefully moving a fragile statue, the 2,300-year-old Winged Victory of Samothrace. But the film doesn't acknowledge two salient facts: that the statue is a celebration of Greek military prowess (when war plunder was an accepted practice), and that French archaeologists whisked it away from Greece in the 19th century.
The ironies continue with the film's framing narrative, as we see the successful battle to restore five Klimt paintings to their rightful owners. The film intends the subsequent sale of the "Gold Portrait" for $135 million to be a happy ending. But really, if art is so sacred that it should be immune from the ravages of war, it seems odd for it to be traded among private hands for such sums. If a painting can be bought and sold like any commodity, then it should be fair game for the age-old practice of stealing. —David Fellerath
The Rape of Europa opens Friday at select theaters.