Tuesday, September 30, 2014

FOREIGN CORNER: City of God (2002)

Somewhere between Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone (the good version), there is Fernando Meirelles and his searing and immediate film, City of God.  That is not to say Meirelles' film is not unique, but visual and narrative threads connect with these directors and their better pictures.  City of God is a film that is told with urgency and violence, but one with flair, panache, and a tone that is fresh and vibrant in the face of despair.  It tells the story of poverty breeding crime in the slums of Rio De Janeiro, but with a love for its characters which creates sincere emotional connections.

Much like Scorsese's Goodfellas, City of God is told through the eyes of a narrator in the midst of violent street crime.  His name is Rocket, played by Alexandre Rodrigues, and he and his brother occupy the dusty streets of a shanty town outside Rio De Janeiro where the privileged isolate the impoverished.  It is called the City of God, a place where God has overlooked the desperate.  Rocket tells the story of his youth in the sixties in the city where he avoids the criminal life while his brother, Shaggy, falls headlong into robberies and heists.  He tells us of the Tender Trio, a group of pre-teen hoodlums who rob propane trucks and brothels, and grow up to battle for power in the slums.  The trio merely lays out a culture of crime and violence, where everyone carries a pistol.  The film moves seamlessly from the sixties into the seventies, where one of the slum's children has grown into a psychopathic, power-hungry drug lord.

Once Li'l Dice as a child, Dice has grown into a hong man and re-named himself Li'l Z (Leandro Firmino).  Z is a cold-blooded killer, using force and murder to gain control of the City of God.  His partner, Benny (Phellipe Haagensen), is a much nicer, more diplomatic drug dealer.  He doesn't kill, he bargains and becomes friends with everyone in the slums.  But Li'l Z has a thirst for control that is unmatched in cinema, and he vows to take over the final neighborhood in the slum, run by Benny's friend, Carrot (Matheus Nachtergaele).  The way these stories and events weave in and out of each other grows hypnotizing, told through the eyes of Rocket's objective narration.  The film is based on a novel from Paulo Lins, who based the story on his time growing up in the City of God, lending even more to the steadi-cam, documentary feel.

Rocket, all the while, struggles with the everyday issues of being a teenager.  He likes a girl, but fails at losing his virginity.  He tries crime, but everyone he and his friend decide to rob is too nice to hurt.  Rocket loves photography, and lucks into a job as a photographer of the local newspaper thanks to his exclusive access to these criminals.  Certain events unfold, there is a rape and a murder, and war breaks out in the City of God between the two gangs.

The plot is complex, yet easy to follow thanks to the names and bright characterizations of every person on the screen.  Characters named Knockout Ned, Clipper, Stringy, and Melonhead all occupy their own place on the screen and are all painted with vivid energy.  The vibrancy of the direction helps to counter balance the despair, the violence, and the moments which are hard to watch.  There are children in danger any number of times, but the story earns such tough scenes.  And despite the violence, Meirelles picks and chooses what to show and what not to dwell on in order to create the most optimal impact on the screen.

City of God is a visceral picture, hard to watch but impossible to turn away from, told with wonderful fervor.  Aside from the visual mastery at play, there is true tragedy at the core, a story about poverty breeding crime.  The story may take place in the slums of Rio, but there is something universal to the tragic nature of these children, and how they will, more than likely, dissolve into death within the impoverished walls of the City of God.  Rocket's story is a rarity, to say the least.