Friday, June 2, 2017


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 I broke that rule was for "City of God". 

One review of “City of God,” on 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 don't 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. I've personally have seen people who stress that they don't like subtitles getting 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 to judge though, this film is alive with people and culture, as it shows the evolution of the drug trade within the poverty-laden streets over decades, 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 when we first meet this kid, and we first do see him and almost all these players originally as kids, to the end of the movie this guy becomes one of the most terrifying movie characters of all-time. 

The film is narrated by Rocket (Luis Otavia as a kid; Alexandre Rodriguez as a teenager) who grew up in the City of God, 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 forebodingly that it’s not yet time to tell his story. 

The film is full of stories. In one virtuoso sequence we see an apartment go through twenty years of being a spot where drugs are sold as the place is exchanged 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 as a circular, neverending motion that's as necessary as it is prevalent. 

Eventually, the gang leaders in this vicious drug war, started partially over turf rights, partially over a murder that may or may not have been entirely an accident, and partially out of inevitability, (and by “war,” I mean actual war) eventually both get killed by the same culture of crime, and not for any greater or lesser anything. One of the last shots of the movie shows that a new breed of exceptionally young kids that are going to takeover the trade and begin the cycle all over again, as they will now own the streets.

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 better takes on "La Ronde" in recent years, as well as the spinoff television series to the movie,  "City of Men" that was internationally successful. 

"City of God" is often listen as Brazil's greatest film and while I can think of some other great candidates, I tend to agree on this one. This films ranks pretty high on my Ten Best List of the decade, and I imagine it ranks high on 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 infamously 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. You know it's a good when the Academy goes back and correct itself for not nominating it earlier. 

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