Urbania (2000)

Urbania Poster

I have a real love of movies that take place in large cities at night, when the city’s only half-awake. These movies tend to have stories that work well with a sense of altered reality, and Urbania does this incredibly well.

Ostensibly, it’s the story of Charlie, a man who’s walking New York City at night in pursuit of another man named Dean. The two were both present at an event in the past that’s nagging at Charlie’s mind – and much of the movie is about discovering what happened.

The story is also about urban legends, and while they aren’t the main focus of the movie, they pervade all the beats of the story. The film’s bravado opening credit sequence shows a man engaging in an impromptu hook-up with a glamorous woman who then drugs him and takes his kidney – just like the story that happened to a friend of a friend of someone you know.

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The main story, of Charlie’s expedition through the night in pursuit of Dean, is interwoven with people telling stories, and many of them make an appearance – the dog in the microwave, the family who go on holiday and have their room ransacked, only to discover what really happened to their toothbrushes when they get their photos developed, etc. – and they’re seen as events happening around Charlie as he walks the streets.

It informs the main story, and the film reveals it to us not in the usual presentation of a narrative we witness, but as though the movie is actively telling us the story as we go along.

The story is tragic. The film offers some misdirection to suggest that Charlie had an affair with Dean, but it doesn’t try to convince the audience of this too much; the truth is much more potent and sinister, and incredibly sad.

As the film allows the viewer more insight into the events of Charlie’s past, it becomes more apparent that he’s a broken man struggling to keep it together. The events that transpire through this night take him to darker places, but on the road to catharsis – not necessarily healing, but as a way to atone for guilt that he shouldn’t need to feel.

I won’t reveal what happened, it’s part of the dark magic of the movie. But the film approaches this event with rage and fury that’s tempered down into loss and devastation. The final scene, where Charlie confronts what he’s really lost is incredibly sad, but beautiful.

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Charlie is also a fascinating character. Although he’s not the same man he used to be – and never can be again – this doesn’t mean he’s walking the streets moping in his misery. This is not a movie about a man with nothing to lose speaking the uncomfortable truths at strangers we never do because it’s impolite, but he does so all the same.

He happens upon his upstairs neighbours, who have loud and raucous sex that he can hear from his apartment, and intrudes on their evening. It’s affable at first, but then he reveals how he knows about them (and how he hears it) purely to spite their happiness. It’s not a pleasant moment, but the movie doesn’t want Charlie to be a perfect angel of a character.

It is darkly funny though, and this runs through much of the movie. Tragic and suspenseful though it may be, it knows how to draw humour out of its situations, even though you’ll probably feel bad for laughing.

It does create the sense of altered reality I mentioned at the start of this review. The film is told in a relatively linear fashion, though cuts between edits of past events, and moments of the fateful night in Charlie’s past are peppered alongside the main story. He also runs into characters who disappear almost immediately, and you get the sense they’re people from moments that haunt him (this is not a ghost story though).

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The stories we tell are efforts to make sense of the things that happen in the world. Urbania is the story of Charlie, and it has a beginning, but there can’t be much sense made of what happened to him.

The stories, the urban legends that we hear, are always kept at a safe distance because they’ve happened to someone else; either a definite story, or it happened to a friend of a friend. This movie is the story where the urban legend actually happened, but without the twist, the shocking reveal, the convenient edge that pushes it over the top, and it’s not contained within a pithy little scenario you can tell around a campfire or over dinner. This is the movie about the story happening, but where it can’t ever have an end precisely because of what happened.

Dan Futterman is brilliant as Charlie; it’s an understated and nuanced performance that could easily have been played with cliché and exaggeration that he wisely avoids. It’s also the rare movie that withholds so much information about the main character but still manages to make it engaging, even though it takes a while to learn what’s going on.

The supporting cast are also on fine form, and though they’re never delved into much as characters, you get a real sense that these are real people with stories of their own. Lothaire Bluteau turns in a particularly poignant performance as a bum who lives outside Charlie’s apartment building, and his character gives a real sense that Charlie’s tragedy is unique to him, but others have their own hard lives to live. It’s no surprise to learn that the film is based on a stage play, though it never betrays its success as a cinematic film.

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It’s the kind of movie that puts its characters first, supports them with a solid story and makes the experience of witnessing that story unfold a worthwhile one. It’s a film that knows that cinema is a versatile medium, and doesn’t resolve to move simply from point A to point B (but don’t confuse this as my suggesting it’s an incomprehensible movie – when the credits roll, you’ll be completely aware of what’s transpired and you won’t be left scratching your head).

It’s well worth a look, even though it may be hard to track down. It’s a strong, impeccably crafted film that tells you a great number of stories alongside it’s main one. It’s a tragedy, but don’t confuse that to mean that it’s solely steeped in despair. It’s one of my favourite movies; dark and creative, and incredibly unique.


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