Friday, June 2, 2017

CANON OF FILM: "CITY OF GOD"

CITY OF GOD (2002)

Director: Fernando Meirelles; Co-Director: Katia Lund
Screenplay: Braulio Mantovani based on the novel by Paulo Lins



When I had first started this "Canon of Film", long before I had this blog and was just doing these for writing exercises basically, I had set up a rule that I wouldn't write one of these pieces for a film, unless it was over ten years old at the time. That was an arbitrary rule, and frankly, I had documentaries as an exception for it to begin with, and frankly, I didn't exactly follow it anyway, although I tried too. One of the first times was for "City of God". 

One review of “City of God,” on imdb.com describes it as “a film that stays embedded in the mind.” That's one of the few times I've ever actually found a review on IMDB helpful, but he's not wrong. I'm told there are people who have seen this movie but find it particularly impressive or powerful, but I can't imagine how or why. Some films just demand you pay attention whether you want to or not, and even people who don't like subtitles will get sucked into this one.  

The film takes place in what’s supposedly been called the worst slums in the world, the titular "City of God" on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, short for, "The City that God Forgot" and quite frankly I agree with the assessment; this place makes Eminem’s 8 Mile in Detroit look like the Continental. Don’t be so quick the judge though, this film is alive with people and culture, as it shows the evolution of the drug trade within the poverty-laden streets beginning with a group called the “Tender Trio,” who holds up trucks to steal gas to sell to the homes. After a motel robbery where there was way more death than can be explained, the movie begins to turn as “The Tender Trio dissolve and the new kingpin, Li’l Ze’s (Douglas Silva as a kid, Liandro Firmino as an adult) empire begins to grow. You don't see Li'l Ze's name show up on Greatest Villains of Film list that often, although, who knows why. From the moment we realize this kid, and we first do see him, and almost all these players we originally see as kids, this guy becomes one of the most terrifying figures around, 

The film is narrated by Rocket (Luis Otavia as a kid; Alexandre Rodriguez as a teenager) who grew up in the City of God, who has a fascination with photography, and sometimes the story moves into sidetracks of his own, including a time where he tries to commit a crime to survive, but doesn’t have it in him. He gets good advice from a former Marine named Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge), who earns money riding the rails; then we’re told rather foreboding it’s not yet time to tell his story. The film is full of stories. In one virtuoso sequence we see an apartment show twenty years of being a spot where drugs are sold as the place exchange from one dealer to another. The film shows how the drug trade effects everyone, not just the user, dealers and transporters. The cops are useless against this kind of crime, the criminals finance the city to the point that they have to be on the take for survival. It shows crime not as a matter of good and evil, or even with shades of gray, but with a circular, neverending motion. Eventually, the gang leaders in a viscious drug war, and by “war,” I mean actual war, eventually get killed by the same culture of crime, and not for any greater or lesser anything, and shows that a new breed of exceptionally young people are going to takeover and trade and begin the cycle all over again. Shot on a mobile hand-held camera and using quick-cutting editing, this film is more watchable than it has any right to be, and trust me, it’s unforgettable, unlike any film you’ll ever see.The credit for who's responsible for that is somewhat disputed, Fernando Mierelles is usually the one credited, although Co-Director Katia Lund directed quite a lot of the film, which makes a lot of sense. She's a documentary filmmaker mostly, and the movie has a cinema verite feel to it, including casting mostly a cast of non-professional actors. It's kinetic, it's active, yet stylized and full of some Scorsese-esque influences. This film does have a "Goodfellas" feel to it, the narration, the editing, the epic story through several decades, the violence, the energy. Meirelles would go on to make intriguing films ever since, including the Oscar-winning "The Constant Gardner" and the underrated "Blindness" as well as "360" one of the best takes on "La Ronde" in recent years, as well as the spinoff television series, "City of Men", which has recently returned for a new season recently. "City of God" may arguably be Brazil's greatest film and I tend to agree, despite there being some great films in the country's long history, and ranks on my Ten Best List of the decade, and I imagine several others as well. 


Note: This film also marks one of the rare occasions where the Academy has actually corrected its own mistake, the film was not nominated for Best Foreign Film in 2002 after a reported ¾ of the Foreign Film Committee walked out at the beginning of the screening. In 2003, the film got an American theatrical release, and the Academy members gave the film 4 actual Oscar nomination, including Best Director for Fernando Meirelles.  
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