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Thursday, May 29, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: City of God (2002)

Director: Fernando Meirelles
Starring: Alexandre Rodrigues, Leandro Firmino

City of God, a masterpiece from Fernando Meirelles, is a film teeming with life and the promise of death. Shot in a pseudo-documentary style, Meirelles captures the grit, the rhythm and the passion of life in the slums of Rio de Janeiro in this powerful condemnation of the drug trade and the governmental powers that allow it to carry on unimpeded. This is a brutal, thrilling film. One that you can’t look away from even for a moment.

City of God is told from the perspective of Rocket (played by Luis Otavio as a child and Alexandre Rodrigues as a teenager), but isn’t about him as much as it is about the world around him and the people who inhabit it. The narrative unfolds in an episodic, anecdotal fashion, telling stories in the middle of other stories, all of which are flowing towards the same narrative climax. By breaking it down this way, relating the various legends that have sprung out of the slums – all of which are naturally connected by the ever escalating violence of slum life – rather than telling the story in a linear fashion, the film provides us with a more deeply realized sense of place than we might otherwise have. It also imbues the characters with greater shades of complexity. There are a lot of characters in this film, too many to really get to know during the course of a straight narrative, but by showing them in different episodes, we get to see different sides to them, enough to fill in the blanks between episodes.

Rocket occupies the edges of the film, an observer who is at once distanced from story while also facilitating its telling. Through a loose connection with Bené (Phellipe Haagensen), Rocket inadvertently becomes a chronicler of the exploits of Li’l Zé’s (Leandro Firmino) gang, immortalizing them through photos that will be published in the papers. However, despite the gang war that is intensifying around him, Rocket remains more concerned with the fact of his virginity and his longing for Angélica (Alice Braga), who is Bené’s girlfriend. Bené, too, is more concerned with Angélica and decides to escape the slums with her, leaving the running of the gang to Zé. However, before they can get out, Bené’s life is cut short when he’s accidentally shot, resulting in an explosion of violence in the slums as both sides look to effectively eliminate the other forever.

The trend of murder and reprisal runs throughout the film, with each side of the gang war taking one life from the other, but then losing one of their own in return. In one of the stories that feeds into other stories, we learn about Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge), a peaceful guy until he’s attacked and his girlfriend is raped by Zé. He joins the rival gang but is determined only to revenge himself on Zé and not allow any innocents to get harmed in the process. How his resolve in this matter is broken down is revealed in a quick, but effective series of scenes showing the gang robbing banks in order to get money to buy more guns. The first time, he insists that no civilians be harmed – “the rule.” The second time, he condones the shooting of a civilian because it saves his life – “the exception to the rule.” The third time, “the exception becomes the rule,” and now Knockout Ned is no different from the rest and, in time, everyone on both sides of the war forgets why it even started in the first place. Towards the end of the film, Ned will meet his own end, shot by someone whose life he has just saved. The film doubles back, informing us that the boy who has killed Ned watched Ned kill his father during one of the bank robberies. In the City of God, what goes around always comes around eventually.

There are a lot of difficult scenes in this film, perhaps none more so than those having to do with “the Runts,” a gang of children. Zé’s gang catches two of them and uses them to initiate a new member of their own gang, one not much older than the two Runts. To become part of the gang, he must shoot the other two kids, either in the hand or the foot, depending on the choice of the victims. It’s a brutal scene, made even more so by the fate of the Runts at the end. They kill Li’l Zé and take over his territory, immediately compiling a list of people they’ve decided they must kill. They have learned nothing from the fate of all those who participated in the gang wars, who died in an unending cycle of death and reprisal, and they have learned nothing from the violence they themselves have suffered. One of the final things we see is the young boy who chose to be shot in the foot, limping along after his comrades as they put together their list and make plans to consolidate their power. There is no childhood here, but there’s no adulthood either because no one lives that long.

Most of the characters are played by people who’ve never acted before but rather than taking away from the film, it only enhances its realism as Meirelles captures a distinct rawness that is fundamental to the story’s success. In one voice-over we hear Rocket telling a story to Marina (Graziella Moretto), a woman who works for the paper that publishes his photos. The story he tells is unscripted, the product of a conversation the two actors were having off-camera that Meirelles decided to include. It’s these slice-of-life qualities that make the film so utterly powerful.


Anonymous said...

I think you're right: the most chilling scenes were with the kids. There was a sense of hopelessness there, that there was no end to the cycle, that the children had no hope.

Fine appreciation of a fine film.

Norma Desmond said...

The scenes with the kids get me every time. It doesn't matter how many times I've seen the movie, when it gets to that point it still manages to hit me really hard.