Lewis Mumford, the great historian of urban life, wrote in 1938 with his typical ambivalence: “This metropolitan world, then, is a world where flesh and blood is less real than paper and ink and celluloid . . . where the great masses of people, unable to have direct contact with more satisfying means of living, take life vicariously, as readers, spectators, passive observers: a world where people watch shadow-heroes and heroines.” Mumford’s artful take on urban existence sets the stage for this exploration of distinctive international cities on film—with special attention paid to instances where the passion for place is most evident.
We will engage our films chronologically with an eye toward how each adopts a unique cinematic approach to its subject city. We commence with Akira Kurosawa’s early noir masterpiece, Stray Dog (1949), which paints an indelible portrait of an impoverished Tokyo in the wake of World War II. We then turn to Soviet director Mikhail Kalatozov’s inventive political film, I Am Cuba (1964), a “lost” classic depicting Havana on the eve of revolution and given new life in the States via a re-release spearheaded by Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. Heading east to Cold War Berlin, we return to the Wim Wenders classic, Wings of Desire (1987), a romantic meditation on mortality, spirituality, and finding humanity in inhumane times. Finally, we journey to Bombay, India, with Mira Nair’s bracing Salaam Bombay! (1988), a film that immerses us in the fragile lives of children surviving in the poorest corners of this vibrant city, and serves as an especially fitting end to our journey.