City of Hope
1991, R, 129 min. Directed by John Sayles. Starring Vincent Spano, Joe Morton, Barbara Williams, Maggie Renzi, Kevin Tighe, Tony Lo Bianco, John Sayles.
REVIEWED By Kathleen Maher, Fri., Oct. 25, 1991
City of Hope opens with a shot on Spano's pretty vacant face to give us an idea of where we'll be visiting for the next couple of hours. We know this place, it's blasted and under siege by economic forces from the outside and corruption from the inside. Sayles deftly weaves a handful of story lines following Spano, “the only fuck stupid enough to quit a no-show job”; his father, Lo Bianco, a contractor who's made so many corrupt deals with the union, the mob, the city and big money developers that he's no longer his own man let alone his own boss; Morton, a city councilmember struggling with his ideals, beliefs and relative political impotence; and Williams, a young mother going to school, working, and taking care of her profoundly retarded son. There are many, many others. This town has an ecology all its own; it lives and breathes. A deal cannot made with the sleazy body shop arsonist (Sayles) on one end of town that is not felt over in the projects where the developers hope to do a little slash and burn urban renewal. And yet, where there's life, there's hope. Spano is the focus of the film. He may be drunk, high, and bored at the start of the film, but he reaches for salvation. He's a loser betting on the Angels at the start of the film, but he's also a hopeless romantic finding hope in an angel, Angela, the young mother. It may look as if the cards are stacked against this town, a place that only the corrupt, political machine mayor could call “The City of Hope” with a straight face. But there are characters like Morton's councilman, project mothers who teach their children to tell the truth, and fathers who can be saved by the love of their sons, that make the mayor's words true. The early part of the film sets up a marvelous rush of recogniton as the disparate threads Sayles is weaving begin to interconnect. As the focus tightens, some of the fun of the puzzle is lost. For the most part Sayles is able to replace it with our sympathy for these characters. City of Hope may be a little relentless on its way to the punchline -- it makes us earn it -- but it gives us something to take home with us: hope.