Filmed in an extremely gritty, almost sepia, black-and-white, "Crane World" depicts a overweight, middle-aged Argentinian construction worker named Rulo who is one step away from permanent unemployment. As part of a growing neo-realist renaissance including films such as "La Ciudad" and "Central Station," they offer a single-minded focus on the losers in the new, highly competitive world economy. By the same token, none offers a vision of how this situation might improve, least of all through the examples of their characters, who are adrift like pieces of wood in a stormy sea.
Rulo, played by Luis Margani, has been trained by a friend to operate a crane on a construction site in downtown Buenos Aires. The new job would offer the 49 year old not only some security, but a sense of dignity. His life has been a string of one dead-end odd-job after another. None has provided him with income beyond what is necessary to sustain a very modest life-style. He lives in a cramped apartment and drives to the construction site in a battered sedan that periodically breaks down on the city streets. None of this bothers the affable Rulo, who is always looking on the bright side.
His pleasures are modest. Hanging out with male buddies, he prepares barbecue in his kitchen, watches soccer matches on television, tinkers with engines and chain-smokes cigarettes. The highlight of his life has been a gig in his youth as a bass player with a rock band called the Seventh Regiment, named after the military unit two of the band members served with.
An encounter with the proprietress of a sandwich stand near the construction site leads to a new romance, soon after the woman reveals that she was a big fan of the band. Keeping with his good-natured personality, he only chuckles when she blurts out that he used to be so skinny. What happened to him? He replies that we all get older.
Victim of his own excesses, Rulo discovers that his overweight condition and general poor health excludes him from the crane operator's job he had been banking on. In desperation he travels south to an arid and desolate Patagonia where he has been told that another crane operator's job is just waiting for him. Not only is the construction site willing to overlook the physical condition of the workers, it soon becomes obvious that the employer hardly cares whether they live or die.
A group of a dozen or so men, including Rulo, live in a run-down dormitory where there is no running water. They work day and night in harsh conditions. When the boss neglects to provide lunch day after day, the men hold a meeting to discuss their options. We can not let them treat us this way, one worker says. During the meeting Rulo remains silent.
Eventually they are all laid off. In a scene that epitomizes Rulo's seemingly foolish determination to put the best spin on a bad situation, he meets with the foreman who is putting him on a truck back to Buenos Aires. They exchange pleasantries about how nice it is to have friends and to share good times. In the final scene, we see a grim-faced Rulo in his darkened apartment smoking a cigarette. What it lacks in dramatic resolution, it more than makes up for in honesty about this character and his lot in life.
The Rulos of this world constitute the overwhelming majority. All they are looking for is the opportunity to share simple pleasures with friends and loved ones. Driven by the lash of an increasingly competitive labor market, they are forced to wander from country to country, or within a country itself, looking for a permanent job that pays a decent living wage. At one time Argentina had a powerful labor movement that influenced film-makers. That labor movement, as is the case in the rest of the world, has been in retreat. When it is reborn, it certainly will inspire a different kind of movie with a different kind of central character. In the meantime, it is essential that directors like Pablo Trapero have the audacity to describe the world as it is, in contradistinction to the pleasant lies coming out of Hollywood and its outposts overseas.