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Saturday, April 6, 2013

21st Century Essentials: City of God (2002)

All eras have works of art that are fundamental to our understanding of not only the craft itself, but the culture from which it was created. The 21st century is still nascent, but it isn't too early to start creating a canon that demonstrates the heights to which film as an artform has reached since the year 2000. These are the essential films:

Director: Fernando Meirelles & Katia Lund
Starring: Alexandre Rodrigues, Phellipe Haagensen, Alice Braga, Leandro Firmino de Hora, Seu Jorge
Country: Brazil

Violence is a cycle. One person acts and then another must retaliate, and on and on. In Fernando Meirelles’ brilliant City of God that cycle continues to spiral downwards until, finally, all that is left is children playing at being grown up gangsters. The ending of this film remains one of the most haunting I’ve ever seen because it is such a thorough indictment of how we, as a society, deal with violence and poverty. There is no resolution here, just human lives that have been accelerated, with childhood ending the moment a boy is old enough to walk out into the street, and adulthood a distant dream because no one lives that long – and then there is one life that successfully escapes to something better.

Set in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, violence rips through this film, which unfolds as a series of interconnected stories about poverty, gang warfare, and drugs as seen through the eyes of Rocket (Luis Otavio as a child, and Alexandre Rodrigues as a teenager), a young man who struggles to break out of the slums. The narrative unfolds in an episodic fashion, with some stories being told in the middle of other stories, all of them flowing towards the same narrative climax, working together to provide the film with its deeply realized sense of place and to provide the characters with shades of complexity that they might not have been able to attain in a more linear narrative.

Although the film can be said to have a preoccupation with death – the body toll in the film is high, but the violence is not exploitative; the stakes are too high and the violence is too brutal to be “entertaining” – it’s ultimately a story about life, told in a vibrant and energetic fashion. Rocket, who exists at the periphery of the gang war tearing the slums apart, spends most of his time preoccupied with trying to lose his virginity and nursing a crush on Angélica (Alice Braga), the girlfriend of a prominent gang leader. That gangster, Bené (Phellipe Haagensen), is also a character who manages to find joy in the slums, his likeability and large network of friends acting as the glue that holds the fragile peace between gangs together. His death is the tipping point, when hope seems to be lost and the slums finally descend into the chaos that has been a long time coming. Bené’s literal life is a deeply felt loss to many in the slums, but it’s also the loss of what he represents - the possibility for a life beyond violence – that casts such a pall over the community.

Meirelles films the story in a pseudo-documentary style, fully attuned to the rhythms of the characters’ lives, and giving the film a sense of immediacy and grit that makes it all the more real and powerful. It is an often brutal film, but also a completely compelling one that you can’t look away from, and its impact has not been lessened by either time or multiple viewings. City of God is a film that stands the test of time; it’s a masterpiece.

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