Posts Tagged ‘City of God’

From the Hootoo archives. Originally published June 19th 2003:

One of the nicer ironies of cinema-going in the summer is that the tremendous onslaught of utterly commercial, big-budget movies, makes it slightly more likely that less polished, art-house fare will get a proper release. How does this work? Well, none of the major studios are going to put even a second-string movie out on the same weekend that a behemoth like X2 or Matrix Reloaded is released, thus cutting down the number of movies in circulation at any given time, and while it’s true that the big boys are most often playing on more than one screen at a time, that still leaves a few vacant theatres in the average multiplex – and thus, a chance for low-budget and foreign language films to make a showing. One such film which I strongly recommend you see if you get a chance is Fernando Meireille’s Cidade de Deus (City of God).

The titular City of God is a vast slum outside Rio. Meirelle’s film tells the stories of many of the inhabitants, covering a period of many years. All are seen through the eyes of aspiring photographer, Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), who grows up trying to avoid being sucked into the underworld of drugs and murder that claims so many of his friends. The different plot threads are connected by the rise of the psychopathic gangster Li’l Ze (Leandro Firmino Da Hora) and the near-apocalyptic turf war that his megalomania ultimately provokes.

It’s difficult to know where to begin to praise this film. The most immediately arresting thing about it is Meirelle’s camerawork, breathlessly hyper kinetic, dragging the audience into the film and propelling them through it with barely a pause. It’s endlessly creative, employing strobes, dissolves, strange staggered editing, and even what looks like a clockwork version of bullet-time at one point. The photography is equal to this, though, employing gorgeous dusty yellows and oranges for the 1960s sequences and a fuller, richer palette for the more modern scenes.

But beyond first impressions lie an ingenious and powerful script. This may be a Brazilian film but its cinematic DNA contains genes from English-language cinema, films like Trainspotting, The Harder They Come, and – most obviously – Pulp Fiction. The story zooms between past and present with astonishing fluency – a standout sequence recounts the history of an apartment, maintaining a single camera angle as the events of many years unfold on screen in a matter of seconds. The energy is maintained by a great soundtrack mixing Latin music with American soul and disco.

And where this film arguably surpasses many of its inspirations is in its tone and subtext. City of God is sometimes violent and jokey in the same moment – but the violence is just as often tragic, sickeningly casual and random. Even here, though, the film somehow retains a certain sympathy for all its characters, no matter how morally worthless they may appear. It suggests that the real villain of the piece is the City of God itself, exerting a corrupting influence upon everyone who lives there – and so one character’s act of mercy accidentally results in his own death, while another man who returns to the slum intent only on justice finds himself inevitably drawn into the cycle of violence and murder. It’s a cycle which the film suggests will only continue, self-perpetuating, for as long as the slum exists.

But this isn’t a heavy, message-driven movie. It also works as a thriller, a comedy, and a coming-of-age story, populated by a huge cast of mostly likeable characters with goofy names like Rocket, Shaggy, Steak, Carrot, and Knockout Ned. The story has a universal quality and could just as easily be set in South Africa, America, or indeed any major city where this kind of social deprivation exists. An exhilarating slab of raw, pulsating cinema, and one of the very best films of the year so far.

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