'Shops Around the Corner': Graz Review

Shops Around The Corner Still - H 2016
Courtesy of Diagonale
Scorsese territory, seen through smartly perceptive European eyes.

This long-gestating record of 1998 New York premiered in the documentary competition at Austria's national film festival.

Joerg Kalt's delightfully deft miniature Shops Around the Corner is a project belatedly completed by his collaborator Nina Kusturica nearly a decade after the Austrian director's death. Of obvious intrinsic ethnographic interest as a glimpse of Little Italy in the throes of transformation, it's an accessible and entertaining documentary whose upbeat tone is all the more infectious and affecting given the tragic shadows of its contexts.

Extensive nonfiction festival play is likely in the wake of its well-received premiere at Austria's national film festival, Diagonale, in the city of Graz. In 2005, Diagonale opened with writer-director Kalt's second fictional feature, comedy-drama Crash Test Dummies; less than two years later he was dead at the age of 40, having taken his own life. The opening credits of Shops Around the Corner, however, simply and tactfully state that he passed away, having abandoned the project in the wake of the 9/11 attacks when "he believed that there were no more films to be made on New York."

In 1998, Kalt had enjoyed an extended visit to the city in company with his partner and collaborator Eva Testor. The pair had become fixated on one particular junction of Mulberry Street and Grand in Lower Manhattan, a location where many businesses were still being operated by Italian-Americans. But the character of Little Italy was undergoing a radical change, with the Italians retiring and decamping to outer boroughs or sunnier states, and more and more Chinese firms and residents moving in.

Kalt and Testor do include interviews with Chinese-Americans, but these prove less garrulous than their Italian neighbors — most of whom turn out to be the kind of "characters" of whom most documentarians dream. But while this pre-Internet, pre-cellphone New York is famously a city of camera-ready perfomers, not all of them exactly welcome the persistent presence of inquisitive Austrian filmmakers in their midst. As the proprietor of a cigar emporium remarks (this genial and chattily informative young lady is a Catholic from New Jersey, but is not herself of Italian extraction), "You mind your own business and everybody's happy."

Kalt, however, is clearly of the Nick Broomfield school of direct intervention, his bumbling-innocent style opening several semi-closed doors and earning the bemused trust of his interlocutors. Locations and individuals repeatedly reappear, looping up into diverting quasi-narratives: Who, for example, is the mysterious Mr. Stabile, the seldom-glimpsed but seemingly all-powerful landlord whose name adorns one of the most prominent buildings in the area? 

In a series of loose, sometimes rambling diaristic snapshots — imbued with a sense of reportage-style immediacy via handheld, boxily Academy-ratio DV — we get a real sense of this micro-neighborhood and its inhabitants as they build up to the area's big annual jamboree, the Feast of San Gennaro. This Neapolitan-flavored celebration is perhaps best known in cinematic terms for its appearances in local hero Martin Scorsese's seminal Mean Streets (1974). That picture provided Robert De Niro with one of his major breakthrough roles, and "Bob" is tangentially present here thanks to the intriguing, laconic figure of middle-aged Sal, who has reportedly cut the megastar's hair on more than one occasion. 

As the threads of the social tapestry combine and reweave, self-effacing Sal — who came over from Palermo in 1967 but still seems to be coming to grips with English — emerges as an unexpectedly pivotal presence. Indeed, it isn't too much of a stretch to imagine him being played by the present-day De Niro, in some fictional version of Kalt's clear-eyed love letter to a resilient city and its rambunctiously unflappable denizens.

Venue: Diagonale
Production company: NK Projects
Director-screenwriter: Joerg Kalt
Producer-editor-'Completion': Nina Kusturica
Cinematographer: Eva Testor
Sales: NK Projects, Vienna

Not rated, 70 minutes