Cidade de Deus
starring Matheus Nachtergaele, Seu Jorge, Alexandre Rodrigues, Leandro Firmino da Hora
screenplay by Bráulio Mantovani, based on the novel by Paulo Lins
directed by Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund
by Walter Chaw I'm uncomfortable with Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund's City of God--not for its brutality, but for the slick cinematic treatment of that brutality as it manifests itself through the harsh realities of Brazil's favelas ("slums"). Social Darwinist and serio-mythic in equal queasy measure, the picture is more influenced by Tarantino than Meirelles's background in commercial and video filmmaking, finding itself trying to balance its sizzle with social conscience before choosing in the end to remove itself as a strict adaptation of Paulo Lins's book Cidade de Deus. That being said, Meirelles does a magnificent job of parceling out--of marketing--the key touchstones in the history of a slum seething with violence. The result is a film that suggests what it might be like if Guy Ritchie helmed The Pianist--kinetically intriguing and technically proficient, but deeply troubling for its pop sensibility.
Split into three segments, City of God is defined by the drugs of the choice of the era and the attendant levels of violence that accompanies each: Opening in the early-'60s with the construction of the titular slum, the picture follows the fate of "The Tender Trio," three small-time hoodlums in a time of reefer and golden sunset beaches who find themselves victims of attrition in an increasingly desperate climate. The sources for that desperation are mysterious--we assume poverty, but the film is more comfortable with nihilistic entropy. And as the picture moves smoothly from the Sixties into the cocaine frenzy of the Seventies (including a magnificent Scorsese-ian murder set-piece set in a discotheque to the tune of "Kung Fu Fighting"), so do two children: one the pacifist brother of a member of "The Tender Trio" (Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues)), the other a murderous protégé (Li'l Zé (Leandro Firmino da Hora)).
The middle segment of City of God, between belabouring the irony of its title, manages to present the rise of Li'l Zé as King Rat: he corners the market on the drug trade by murdering each of his rivals. Rocket, in the meantime, aspires to becoming a photographer and escaping the slum by, irony again, documenting its decay. Neither about addiction nor poverty, nor any of the social ills that create the situations documented in the picture, City of God is instead about children murdering children to a rollicking soundtrack and a passel of slickified cinematographic trickery. Not "raw" and not "powerful," either, the violence in the picture is voyeuristic and sort of illicitly exciting, framed as it is in a visual vocabulary in which we've become accustomed not only through Tarantino's work, but also through Seventies blaxploitation flicks. Consider that Goodfellas, the picture to which City of God is most often compared, presents a strong social context for its tale of violence and retribution.
The last section of City of God is the least compelling, as the picture ratchets up the bloodshed with the introduction of a reluctant soldier with a tragic story named Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge). Anarchic and disjointed, the film erupts into an extremely well staged war film that is sadly free of context and any characters developed beyond the very basic sketches of motivation and behaviour. Artistic violence is escapist fare; marry it to actual historical tragedy and it becomes exploitation. That Merirelles's picture (co-director Lund, an expat of the favelas, was brought on board for "authenticity") happens to be a particularly accomplished exploitation picture does little to disguise the emptiness at its centre--nor, ultimately, much to assuage the voyeuristic discomfort it inspires (its peak/nadir occurring in the sadistic, and extended, torture of a pair of six-year-olds--imagine the ear scene in Reservoir Dogs, more graphic, with toddlers). The question of the picture isn't what to do with the City of God, but really why do anything when such cool movies can be made from its suffering. Potentially a great film were it not based in fact, City of God makes a mistake in making human misery exhilarating--an invitation to rubberneck un-tempered by social responsibility, and the logical product of the widely held and cancerous belief that movies are really ever "just" movies. Originally published: March 14, 2003.