Great movies don't start in sound studios. Cinema's lifeblood courses through the streets. Whether it's Le Rue Mouffetard, Las Rambles, or Avenue A, that's where you'll find the new waves: in alleys, parks, and cafes, scrappy directors with a few bucks in their pocket, a portable camera, and actors they plucked off the curb.
While the embattled Manhattan skyline still reigns as the dream factory's most enduring urban set, consider a visit to Rome, Paris, or even Tehran to see street cinema's origins and advances. And to be honest, it's the safest way to see the world. At a time when airplane travel immediately conjures up thoughts of Passenger 57 and well, CNN, I'd much rather take a trip to the video store, hunker down with my microwave popcorn, Potassium Iodide pills and a few gallons of water, and indulge in celluloid fantasies of faraway cityscapes with a pulse (while I still have one). Why not sprint with flame-haired Lola through the arches of the Oberbaum Bridge in Berlin (Run Lola Run) or drive through the over-crowded streets of Mexico City, all the while radio blasting the hip-hop rhymes of "Si Senor" (Amores Perros)? Energized trips to be sure, but they also thrive on one of the fundamental elements of great street films: crisis and conflict. So much for escapism.
The granddaddy of them all, Open City, was filmed just weeks after the Allied liberation of Italy in 1945. Roberto Rossellini and crew urgently took to their bomb-ravaged Roman neighborhoods to chronicle a heart-rending story about resistance fighters and ordinary people struggling to survive under the gun of German fascists. And in Vittorio de Sica's 1949 sentimental favorite The Bicycle Thief, the post-war city is so tangible you can taste the dirt and grime. When hardened father Antonio Ricci, along with his little boy Bruno, take to the roads in search of his stolen bike (which supplied his only job), the quest makes for some of street cinema's most indelible images: father and son crestfallen on the sidewalk; collars pulled up to stay dry in the soaking rain, and a wrenching walk along the banks of the Tiber river where Antonio thinks his son has drowned. Post-war dread also suffuses the shadow-soaked Viennese underground passageways and piles of rubble in British director Carol Reed's 1949 noir The Third Man, which, while more polished than the Italian Neo-realist masterpieces, captures the gothic fear of the Euro-metropolitan milieu like no other film since. On the street, you never know what's going to turn the corner.
For a more jolting dose of urban terror, there's Gillo Pontecorvo's 1965 sweat-inducing Battle of Algiers. Here, shaky, grainy black and white images again replicate the feel of the Italian Neo-real, as Algerian freedom fighters battle their French colonial oppressors in the capital port city. From the labyrinthine passageways of the close-knit Casbah to the modern French quarter filled with posh cafes, Pontecorvo seizes on the realism of the streets for a menacing everydayness. Veiled woman smuggle guns through checkpoints and bombs suddenly explode in the midst of café conversations and dance halls filled with teenagers. Never has the municipal outdoors felt so visceral on screen, or so threatening. By the way, if you're planning a trip to Algeria, here's a tip from an online travel site: "Bombings, booby traps, shoot-outs, and kidnappings occur with frightening regularity. If you must travel to the region, take elevated security precautions." Better yet, I'm sticking to the comforts of my fireproof building in Brooklyn.
Or visions of Paris. While the metropolis has seen its share of troubles, the French New Wave's pre-'68 love affair with the City of Lights should do wonders for those of us who want to experience the beauty of les arrondissments without the risks. Made on the cheap and filmed on the rues, Francois Truffaut's pioneering The 400 Blows (1959) depicts a raw and romantic Paris where little Antoine Doinel is on a slowly downward spiral. A series of endearing outdoor escapades (he plays hooky, goes to the movies, steals a typewriter) finally turns serious when Doinel is arrested, thrown into reform school, and ends up escaping in search of the sea. (Now that may be an idea, although I've heard warnings about SCUBA divers.)
Doinel, of course, isn't the only child who spent time on the streets. Spanish surrealist Luis Bunuel found a riveting tale of street urchins, barefoot, tattered and tainted in the alleyways of poverty-stricken Mexico in 1950's Los Olvidados, and Brazilian director Hector Babenco evoked the same palpable desolation of youth in Pixote. In this 1981 stunner, the young title character and his fellow meninos de rua ("street children") end up in Rio de Janeiro's favelas -- hillside shantytowns of tin and wood overlooking Rio's resort-laden coastline -- where they run drugs, pimp women and commit murder amidst its tangled passageways. At this year's Cannes Film Festival, the favela got an eye-opening update with Miramax's big acquisition City of God, a dazzling action-packed gangland drama, focusing on an adolescent trying to escape Rio's most ruthless and destitute hood.
And from Iran's newly revitalized cinema, there's a whole band of little boys and girls rushing through the bustling roads, dusty paths, and modern highways of both urban and rural Tehran. From 7-year-old Razieh confronting a city of snake charmers, shysters and soldiers in her mission to buy a goldfish in Jafar Panahi's The White Balloon (1996) to the resourceful Ali who tries to make up for losing his younger sister's shoes in Majid Majidi's Children of Heaven (1999), Iranian filmmakers, like the Italian and French before them, know that it's on the street, in the open, subject to the perils and precariousness of real life, where the most resonant movies are made.
It all sounds so exciting. Too bad I'm afraid to set foot outside my apartment.
(A version of this article originally appeared in SOMA magazine.)