Friday, June 01, 2012

City of God (2002)

Cidade de Deus, Brazil/France, 130 minutes
Director: Fernando Meirelles
Writers: Paulo Lins, Braulio Mantovani
Photography: Cesar Charlone
Music: Ed Cortes, Antonio Pinto
Editor: Daniel Rezende
Cast: Alexandre Rodrigues, Leandro Firmino da Hora, Phellipe Haagensen, Douglas Silva, Jonathan Haagensen, Matheus Nachtergaele, Seu Jorge, Jefechander Suplino, Alice Braga

In the immediate aftermath of a first viewing, City of God may seem like a bit of a hard nut to crack. It very much dons the garb of the gangster picture in the post-Godfather manifestations we know well now, telling a big complicated story about petty crime and big fights that sprawls across decades, families, and friendships. GoodFellas is the most obvious template, even set in the poorest slum of Rio de Janeiro in the '60s and '70s (known as the titular "City of God"). Voiceover narration controls the bends and focus of a storyline that is as fluid as it is dense with information, a jittery narrative strategy that is nonetheless fully in control and always feels it, continually prepared to stop, back up, and add another layer with another story for more context and detail.

At the same time City of God is very much an exercise in style, with its supersaturated palettes, its handheld verite, its many long lyrical tracking shots, its sudden blasts of inflecting music, such as a pitch-perfect use of "Kung Fu Fighting," and its split screens—never an indulgence, always useful, and just as fully under control as everything else here, for example signaling with the relative sizes of the split screens their relative importance. It's a picture full of set pieces that operate virtually as movies within the movie, intensely rendered tangents that nonetheless find ways to circle back and continue advancing the tangled narrative. In the end there's little else to do but let oneself get swept up in it, as there are virtually no cheats. It's the kind of great natural storytelling more often found in slabs of 19th-century novels, Dostoevsky and Henry James and Charlotte Bronte, with chapters and flashbacks and elaborate foreshadowing. There may be spoilers on the other side of the jump.

It's full of sleight-of-hand tricks, gleeful but never showoffy about its many stunts, such as the artful way it elides assigning responsibility for a massacre that occurs during a takedown of a lovers' motel (the Motel Mi A Mi), which appears to go suddenly from lucrative caper and almost comic lewd slapstick to a brutal slaughter at just about the moment when the police arrive. One is left with the impression that the police must have done it for some reason, but the forward momentum of the picture does not leave one time to think about it closely, until the point arrives—and it does, the absolute right point in fact—for a crucial reveal about a character.

Indeed, that is the very structure of the movie, intuiting ways to reveal character. The main tale is well underway as City of God begins, plunging us in media res to its climactic sequence, only to take hold of itself and pause, then proceed to spend the next two hours unpacking the first five minutes, shifting back and forth and across time in the capable hands of the voiceover narrator, Rocket, who is somehow close to the center of everything that happens here. He knows everything by the time he's telling this story, but it came to him in pieces, the way it comes to us, and if he makes us suffer the same kinds of gaps in information that he experienced it's because he knows that is the way to tell the story.

The shape and attack of City of God shift constantly, keeping us at once committed to the story via Rocket yet continually thrown in terms of our expectations, moving from coming-of-age gangster tale to outright gang war conducted on the open streets and finally back again. The whole narrative strategy alone is something to watch unfold, each new permutation ultimately settling into the background to become context for the next chapter, just when you think it's breaking wide open again. It happily borrows from films and film conventions as needed—not just gangster pictures, though they are the most obvious, but also neorealism, documentary, romance, and horror. I think I saw lifts from I Vitelloni, I Walked With a Zombie, Apocalypse Now, and a few others too.

Along the way City of God creates one of the great unforgettable monsters of gangster pictures in Li'l Dice (later known as Li'l Ze after a mysterious ceremony). The prevailing ethic is expressed early on by a lover of one of the gangsters in succinct formulation: "Hoods don't love, they desire. Hoods don't talk, they smooth-talk. Hoods don't stop, they take a break."

Some of the set pieces are amazing in their own right, such as a history of an apartment out of which drugs are dealt, which so swiftly catalogs the cruelties, humiliations, and downward spiral to squalor that it almost happens too fast, compressing even critical information into asides that must be watched for closely. One is often rewarded for rewinding, studying closely, and absorbing it carefully—and it's not necessarily good filmmaking, if it requires rewinding. But in the theater, where the option is not available, the film remains effective—and, to put it plainly, dazzling—enough to carry itself along with energy, and the lost details are not as important. They can be caught up with in subsequent viewings, which incidentally makes it a film that rewards such subsequent viewings, but does not require them. It operates all at once at these two levels—brilliant kinetics to hold one in thrall, opposed with carefully rendered detail to make it a tale worth poking through for the rich lodes of information and character and story details packed all through. It is organically imagined, brash, energetic, and colossal.

In many ways it works for me as a good example of what makes great movies great. For me, exhausted now by most of a lifetime of gangster pictures, it had that to overcome in the first place, and it did. It sweeps one up with sure filmmaking into its strange disorienting world, and it entertains, horrifies, captivates, and enthralls—yet locates and defines itself with so many characters and so much detail that it's difficult to get it all in one viewing. One does not suspect how much one may have missed until seeing it again. It feels complete in itself on a single viewing—and rewarding, a real piece of beauty and fine moviemaking.

Top 10 of 2002
Approximately 2002 is when, after most of an adult lifetime habit of it, I stopped going out to the movies much for several years, so a lot of this list is again mostly reconstructed later viewings. The gaps feel a little more pressing—I really wanted to get to them and simply ran out of time. I still plan to get to them soon. I did see 28 Days Later..., The Ring, and The Mothman Prophecies in theaters at the time, which may say something about my mood that year. I do think The Ring is a little underrated as horror—I actually liked it more than the original Japanese version. The Mothman Prophecies is a sentimental favorite. I know a number of people who love it too, more for its sources in John A. Keel, which is certainly what I like most about it.
1. Stevie
2. City of God
3. Punch-Drunk Love
4. The Son
5. 28 Days Later...
6. The Ring
7. Femme Fatale
8. Standing in the Shadows of Motown
9. 24 Hour Party People
10. The Mothman Prophecies

Didn't like so much: Panic Room, The Pianist, Rabbit-Proof Fence, Secretary, Star Wars: Attack of the Clones

Gaps: Funny Ha Ha, Irreversible, Morvern Callar, Russian Ark, Vendredi Soir

Other write-ups: Adaptation.

1 comment:

  1. I'm long past tired of gangster flicks but once and awhile one rises from the dead. This was the last one to do so for me. Nice write-up.