Exploring Explosive Social Commentary in Film with Ken Loach’s ‘Riff-Raff’

 


Ken Loach’s 1991 film, Riff-Raff, belongs to a beautiful tradition of film, one that was perhaps spawned as early as 1945, when Roberto Rossellini made Rome, Open City and introduced both Italy and the world to neorealism in film for the first time; Fellini once spoke and said that only Rossellini could make neorealist films, and while some may disagree with this statement, especially since it excludes some great works, like Bicycle Thieves for example, from the genre, there’s no denying that films and filmmakers attempting to achieve what he did in Rome, Open City or Germany Year Zero ended up doing something somewhat different. That is not a bad thing. Films portraying society and offering their own commentary on it may have started with Rossellini, but from that point onwards, they were as diverse as the place from which they came and the directors who took it upon themselves to paint a true image of society.

In Britain, these films formed a genre of their own, and came to gather a strong following as the years rolled by, and came to be known as British sociorealism. Perhaps best represented by the work of director Mike Leigh, whose films Meantime, Life is Sweet, High Hopes, and *debatably* Naked, shared a pattern to some degree: scenes from mundane life in Britain, interlinked with a simple, repeated melody, with a focus on human relations in the midst of one of the nation’s darkest periods, the Margaret Thatcher era. Of course, these films vary in their subject matter, and in their approach to it, but the end result is almost similar: a true, raw and stripped-down depiction of British society.

Ken Loach was also one of the pioneering British directors of the time, and his film, Riff-Raff, the subject of this piece, borrows heavily from Leigh, but differs in its conclusion; While Leigh exclusively portrays, in one relentlessly monotone way, Loach takes on a more explosive approach, explosive in the most literal sense of the word. Riff-Raff delves into the mundane for the majority of its runtime, and offers a disquieting sense of comfort along the journey, before disrupting it abruptly and violently; an approach that brings to mind Spike Lee’s 1989 Do the Right Thing, Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 La Haine, or more recently, Bong Joon-Ho’s 2019 Parasite. Films like Riff-Raff are inherently and inescapably political, but how do you approach writing about one without being political?

Sure, there is a plot, a simple story revolving around a construction worker, his girlfriend who is a singer, and his coworkers; a story in the form of little vignettes, mundane scenes varying in subject matter, theme and setting, linked together solely through characters and a repeated simple tune as the scene shifts over and over again. There is no drive to the story, no dreams, at least not any that characters fully pursue; everyone has one but they give up the moment they are faced with the real world, it is that shockingly fast and easy. There is no one unified theme, there are many: race, class, roots, addiction, dreams, survival, violence, love, justice. Dialogue is of the most significant importance, casual conversations are constantly fired throughout the film, most of which are but a way to set the scene, but in this process of scene-setting, life is portrayed; it is a very subtle and often chaotic way of communicating the film’s themes, but nothing feels more real. Between its realist script and budget, almost documentary-like filming, Riff Raff offers incredible imagery and symbolism, something that I do not care to offer my input on, it’s either too clear or too subjective; what the act of construction workers killing a bunch of baby rats means to a viewer will vary from what it might mean to another, even though its big message is universal.

Yes, it is a very political film, but why would someone who’s not at all interested in Britain’s history, the Thatcher era, or class conflict, care to watch it? And why is it as entrancing for a stranger as it is for someone who is very much concerned? In specific suffering, there is universality.


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