2003 TOP 10 — Number 4
CITY OF GOD (Fernando Meirelles, Brazil)
CITY OF GOD won multiple Oscar nominations (including script and director) and is taking advantage of the publicity with a minor theatrical re-release, at least in Washington and so I imagine in some other markets too, giving people who missed it (and shame on you) another chance to catch it. (Though its video release just got pushed back a few months, and not for the first time, now to June.)
And that additional chance really should be taken advantage of, because of the four movies among my Top 10 that are in foreign languages, the two from Europe will not be to everybody’s taste, I acknowledge. But the two films from Brazil — CITY OF GOD and BUS 174 — are movies that I’d heartily recommend to anybody, even people who rarely see foreign-language flicks. BUS 174, as I’ve said, begins with the form of a “Cops” episode, while CITY OF GOD is basically a gangster film. One of the most dazzlingly directed, most powerful and brilliantly structured gangster films ever (think GOODFELLAS … and yes I do intend that comparison; CITY OF GOD *is* that good). But a gangster film, so it’s well within most people’s comfort zone (as IRREVERSIBLE and THE SON are not) if they would just go see it.
The title does not refer to St. Augustine’s theology, but to the name of a Rio de Janeiro favela, which, in the course of the movie’s sprawling 20-year, dozen-character scope, breeds an army of killers, drug lords and thieving children (the three categories by no means mutually exclusive). It begins with several teens in the 1950s, and follows their story for about 30 minutes until it ends with a police crackdown following a massacre at a whorehouse, after which the three central characters — Clipper, Goose and Shaggy all take three different routes — religion, respectable poverty and crime. But then CITY OF GOD shifts focus and we see this sequence has been there primarily to get to the heart of the emotional situation among some younger children on the fringes. These kids survive into adulthood to provide the engine for the main plot — principally Rocket (the somewhat bland central character who nibbles around the edge of the gangster-drug lifestyle), Ze Pequeno (who never really grows up but comes to run the favela as a teen by sheer ruthlessness) and Benny (the entrepreneur who’s down with murder, but only instrumentally and so is a restraint on the psycho). The children have become the men.
It’s as if, on “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” director Fernando Meirelles had been a contestant for “Authors” and had to do “LOS OLVIDADOS in the style of Martin Scorsese.” This is a good thing, by the way; the hyper-caffeinated style in CITY OF GOD is just breathtaking and entertaining as all get-go — the orange-clay look of the 50s segment, a bravura one-shot dissolve through the history of a single room in the favela over decades, the repeated freeze-frames, a 360-degree stop-motion shot, the great sequence of Benny’s “leaving the life” party. And it’s not all that Old Razzle-Dazzle. Mereilles understands the importance of counterpoint. In the midst of Benny’s party, which is basically all hurtling, exhilirating “flow,” the shot I most remember (maybe more than any other single shot in a movie this year) is the scene’s one moment of “ebb.” Mereilles holds for several seconds, but it feels like an eternity, on the face of Ze Pequeno (think the Joe Pesci character in GOODFELLAS), as it dawns on him that all his machismo isn’t getting him the thing he wants most. And as the dance floor lights flash, the opening bars of Carl Douglas’ “Kung Fu Fighting” swell up (oh … hoh-hoh-hoh …). The look on the face of actor Leandro Firmino da Hora, a nonprofessional like most of the (terrific) cast, says everything and nothing at the same time.
But CITY OF GOD is more than an empty exercise in cinematic fireworks. One of the keys to seeing what it is about is to notice how few of the significant deaths (and there are a *lot* in this movie) come deliberately from an expected source. Neither Ze Pequeno nor Ned the vigilante kills the other, though their feud is what drives the last hour of the movie. Probably the most-memorable death is a botched attempt to kill someone else. Your downfall is never what you expect, precisely because you’re on guard against that. But life forces so many unthinking and habitual actions on us that we can never quite know what will turn out to have been the important ones. “Life can be lived forward, but can only be understood backward,” Kierkegaard said. One’s character and a polity are defined by what they take as ordinary and taken-for-granted, *not* what is self-consciously agonized over. That’s the reason for the initially deliberately misleading gaps in the narrative (e.g., we’re at first cued to think a massacre at a brothel is the work of the police).
Although most of the central characters meet the fate you expect, the film becomes richer on second viewing (the classic test for a great-vs.-merely-good movie) because you see each man sow the seeds of his doom, but he’s never cognizant of it and Meirelles does nothing to make *us* cognizant of it on first viewing. But (and here’s the movie’s genius), in retrospect, it makes perfect sense. One of the great strengths of CITY OF GOD, and what allows it to do this, is that it creates a real sense of a teeming world beyond the edges of the screen.
For example, there is a bus conductor whom we see for a moment at about the midpoint but are casually told “it’s not time for him to enter the story yet.” But he becomes the central engine for the third act. The amazing screenplay juggles a huge number of characters and incidents without ever losing focus or getting confused. One central character is killed by someone only seen on the periphery in three or four moments (which the film re-plays and thus re-codes for second viewing). Survival in CITY OF GOD is at one and the same time unpredictable while living it, while seemingly perfectly predictable in hindsight or with perfect knowledge (which as limited mortals, we don’t have; and even apart from that, most of our actions are habitual and not self-consciously thought-through).
The ending, and the fates of the two or three characters may seem arbitrary, but in some ways that’s the point — the life of sin leaves so much ruin in its wake that the sin that comes back to haunt you isn’t the one you’d been looking out for (see also, MENACE II SOCIETY), nor necessarily is it the worst sinner that suffers most (ditto). This “fickle finger of fate” theme common to gangster-drug movies — that kind of lifestyle, shall we say, does not offer security and stability as one of its benefits. Or as the hit man in Wong Kar-wai’s FALLEN ANGELS put it: “someone else decides who lives or dies.”
There is one harrowing set-piece involving some child thieves (think the Travolta-Jackson apartment invasion at the start of PULP FICTION … only instead of college students, they’re kids of 8 or 9). It might sound craven to use children as symbols of innocent vulnerability, but by the point in CITY OF GOD where this happens, nobody watching the movie could be under any illusions about these kids’ innocence — and Mereilles has these kids turn up later at some rather important points. Still, the scene goes on for a while while Ze Pequeno recites Ezekiel 25:17 and the tears start to flow. It’s not gory exactly (in fact, for a film shot as much brio as CITY OF GOD, there’s no fetishizing of blood or gore that I recall). But it’s not for the psychologically squeamish — I saw about a dozen people walk out at this scene in my three viewings of CITY OF GOD.
Plus I knew I was seeing a work of genius when the flashback began with a soccer game and everybody can dribble and move like a mofo, but the goalkeeper absolutely stunk. THAT’S Life In Brazil for you.