Applying Neorealism to the American Dream
By: Carson Malone
The Illegal, directed by Danish Renzu tells the story of Hassan played by the Life of Pi star Suraj Sharma. Hassan is an educated middle class kid from Daryaganj, India, who moves to Los Angeles to enter film school. The film is a gritty tale of how dreams can be crushed by the harsh realities of life, and aspirations stifled by a society so prone to exploitation.
The fast paced, upbeat beginning captures Hassan’s enchantment with the world around him. He begins the movie excited for the journey he is about to embark on. Hassan starts as a fun, spirited boy, who holds a firm grasp to the youthful innocence a life in the middle class of India can provide. However, this sheltered boy is quickly transformed into a cynical man, as upon his arrival in L.A. he is shoved down the socioeconomic ladder. Now life which once impassioned him to make films, drains his soul to the point where he is angry at the world. Hassan believed that the American dream was something attainable for everyone. However reality hits him, and when he comes to the realization that his aspirations were foolish he is devastated. What is left of Hassan is pure bitterness for the cruelty of the world around him.
As the story unfolded, I caught myself re-entering the classroom of my Filmmakers of Italy undergraduate course. Not only did images of Italian Neorealism begin to appear in the work, with Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, Fellini’s 81⁄2 and La Dolce Vita, making surprise cameos throughout the films runtime. Moreover, the story itself captured the essence of neorealism. The first moment of neorealist recognition came to me when Hassan arrives at his uncle’s house. The house rests in the foreground of the shot, its small, and meagerly lit by unpleasant lighting. The background gives way to a beautiful L.A. skyline, with sleek sophisticated buildings, so distant from the simple house that exists in the foreground. This shows how Hassan’s aspirations of capturing the American dream will be much more challenging than he realized. His dreams are not as close as he imagined, and like a skyline they truly exist in what seems like an unconquerable distance. Hassan is a character who closely resembles Marcello from La Dolce Vita. Like Marcello, Hassan is ambitious, he dreams of succeeding in the arts, and those aspirations get lost among the chaos of a modernist world. By the end of the film Hassan’s outlook on life becomes cynical. He has no hope for his future, as familial obligations along with his struggle to maintain an existence in L.A. has drowned him in debts he must repay. He has been taken advantage of, in a system he thought was supposed to work in his favor. Like the world of La Dolce Vita, each of the surrounding cast around our main protagonist function as unique symbols for him. Like Sylvia from La Dolce Vita, Jessica has a goddess-like aura about her. She enchants Hassan, and for a while helps him to forget about his problems. She symbolizes Hassan’s hope. Hope is a beautiful thing, that can give the world a feeling of enchantment. Jessica’s continuous optimism and wonder about the world encapsulates Hassan’s hope. It comes as no surprise that as the movie progresses, Hassan slowly pushes Jessica away from him, just as he distances himself from the hope he once had. On the other hand, Khan the mobster-like restaurant owner that takes Hassan “under his wing”, symbolizes the oppressive nature of Hassan’s current existence. For Hassan, his journey is not only about his dreams and goals, it is about understanding the world around him. Is the world a place where his hope can exist?
Furthermore like Marcello, Hassan is given the same choice between how he can live his life. Marcello and Hassan both have to decide to either live out a life characterized by a hard and brutal chase for their aspirations, or give up their ambitions for a life closer to the familial love they left behind. Both films pose the question about the value of dreams. Are dreams worth chasing if all they do is bring misery, and rip the joy out of life? Is the struggle that comes with aspirations worth the sacrifice of a peaceful existence? It is clear that in both texts dreamers will never live peacefully. Hassan is miserable chasing dreams that won’t come true, and if he gives them up he will live life feeling unfulfilled.
Like the worlds of Bicycle Thieves, Rome Open City, Paisan, and La Dolce Vita, The Illegal boasts a setting of characters who are active in working towards their aspirations, but see their efforts pacified by greater social forces. The Italian neorealists aimed to create oppressive settings, and Renzu does the same in the case of The Illegal. What we get is characters who are passive in worlds that are manipulative. However, where The Illegal diverges from any sort of neorealist precedence is the function of its story. The Illegal explores the veracity of the American dream. It questions the idea that America is the land of opportunity for anyone. In The Illegal the American dream is purely American. For Hassan and so many other foreigners with a story like his, the American dream is an alluring siren which under the surface is the vehicle for intense exploitation and oppression.