Thursday, February 12, 2004
Director Fernando Meirelles’ Brazilian slum epic City of God is a profound and stylistically expansive depiction of three decades of child gang warfare on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro with non-actors playing their poverty-ridden lives for the camera. The only other film that approaches City of God’s clear-eyed social narrative about the merciless plight of Brazil’s downtrodden adolescent underclass is Hector Babenco’s Pixote (1981).
Set in a real-life drug and violence-ridden housing project called Cidade de Deus (City of God), the story follows two boys who take opposite paths. Rocket (Alexandre Rodriques) chooses to pursue photography while Li’l Ze (Leandro Firmino da Hora) becomes a ruthless drug dealer. The film is based on a biographical novel by Paolo Lins and is greatly influenced by cinematographer Cesar Charlone’s dramatic use of anomalous film stocks to emphasize the story’s shifting decades.
The cast of non-professional actors in City of God was trained at a performance school put up where the film was shot in a nearby, somewhat safer slum than Cidade de Deus. The realism on display is gripping because the children’s infectious joy and early maturity overshadow the terrible plight of their real-life characters. When Charlone’s ever-moving camera drops in on a soccer game early in the movie, we get some of the fastest and purest exposition ever shown in cinema. The fierceness of the adolescent gangsters is as brutal and infected with greed and ego as that of any Mafia member.
The immense surge of the story’s violence swells from an off-screen rape that initiates a gang war that locks Rocket and Li’l Ze into their respective destinies. The story is told in well-placed voiceover by Rocket that helps sort out the looping intricacies of the narrative. The Tarantino puzzle plot influence is prevalent here and is executed with every bit as much bravura. Time speeds up, slows down, inverts, and marches on to an all-too-knowable future.
City of God is a successful word-of-mouth movie that has been running for well over a year in different cities in North America. It shows an inner circle of hell fed by an exploitative media in Brazil that inadvertently rescues one child from the ghetto for the war correspondent photos he takes. Meirelles embraces the good and the bad as essential elements of the same story, and in so doing allows the audience to make their own assessments about the nature of poverty and its architects. There is a lightness and control in the stylization of the movie that expands in the viewer’s mind for days and weeks after seeing it.
City of God [4 stars]
Directed by Fernando Meirelles
Starring non-actor residents of Rio de Janeiro
Rated R, 133 mins.