City of God (2002, Fernando Meirelles)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

The best film ever made about organized crime? This one, if you ask me. Doubling as one of the best “epics” in cinema, City of God is major stuff in pretty much every respect. The universally acclaimed Brazilian film is indeed something to put in the capsule: It’s an embodiment of near-flawless directing (by Fernando Meirelles), with every idea applied with absolute perfection and grace. And what’s most lovable about this violent, sometimes bleak picture is how you can almost literally feel it winning you over. It has, to put it mildly, a lot of work to do. It opens in an off-putting, oblique fashion with horrible fast cutting and stop/start motion effects, the kind of then-stylish material that has dated so many mainstream films of its period. But soon enough the theatrics for the sake of theatrics end and everything begins to serve the astounding, enveloping story.

It walks an impressive tightrope, being a witty and exuberant movie about unspeakable horrors, pushed into oblivion not just by its obvious aesthetic virtues (the editing in the body of the film is nearly without peer) but by how lived-in and human it comes to seem. For all of its sprawling content — spanning everything from a gang war that lasts until no one can remember why it started to one boy losing his virginity — its essence is an incisive and chillingly logical portrait of how violence expands and envelops atop turmoil, strife, and class inequality, intertwined with the focused narrative of a bright kid whose skewed perspective on all this becomes not his “way out,” as so many have defined it, but our way in as an audience.

The City of God is a real-life ghetto of Rio de Janeiro where gangs and crime run rampant; the movie is an epic history of conditions there in the ’60s and ’70s and how they fall on this one young boy, somewhat in the style of Goodfellas but infinitely superior. One could easily construct out of this premise a maudlin film full of relentlessly grim bloodshed, and so many people have created that movie, but Meirelles has made something that goes far beyond this. Of course it maintains its key comment about the strife of the inner city, but the film is, in its own strange way, a joyful one; it teems with life, with imagination, with hope, all because of its protagonist, budding photographer Rocket (the engaging Alexandre Rodrigues).

The key difference between this movie and Goodfellas (and, for that matter, similarly structured pictures like Once Upon a Time in America) is not its nationality but the identification achieved with Rocket, a resourceful, wise, gifted young man whose heart and voice bond him irrevocably with the audience. Scorsese’s film seemed driven by escapism, by how different the life of Ray Liotta was from those watching his film, a point finally made explicity at the conclusion. City of God is driven by the universal nature of all things. It’s as witty and warm as it is sobering, harsh, achieving the bigness of epic Hollywood filmmaking but also the intimacy of a friend telling you an astonishing anecdote.

Meirelles’ film is undeniably flashy, but flash is so much beside the point in a tale this exquisitely told. The breadth, economy, and pace of the storytelling is what truly brings the movie to such a high level; that’s why it becomes such an experience to behold, and why it becomes so cathartic and absorbing. The story is told in emotional rather than linear fashion, rife with flashbacks and flashforwards and repetitions much like Citizen Kane or The Killing, and the frame of reference for the visuals is obviously French New Wave: a healthy combination of the delicate and unfalteringly accurate vision of youth in The 400 Blows with the jump cuts, gun-toting hedonism, and cinematic stunt work of Breathless. Meirelles is one of the only directors in the modern era who’s used tricks like slow motion, quick cutting, and speed alteration for emotional story purposes rather than showing off his movie’s arbitrary eccentricity. His film isn’t about self-love, it’s about winning over the viewer. Tarantino he is not, and I’m thankful — even if it’s hard to imagine this movie existing if Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction did not.

City of God has to contend with twice as many characters as your average crime film, but it never once confuses; every plot point is executed painlessly. Characterization is superb; when people we’ve grown to love — in less than two hours — die, we feel it in the gut. When they’re in danger, we fear for their safety. The prologue explicating the origins of gangland rivals L’il Ze and Carrot, and the depressing fate and futility of a major hit by a ramshackle gang called the Tender Trio, rings out as protest of both the impoverished nature of this vulnerable slum and the violence that nearly leads them out of it. The loss, midway through the film, of the friendly and pragmatic Benny (Phellipe Haagensen) is almost too tragic to endure on repeat viewings. And the way we watch an already tenuous situation crumble into warzone chaos in the last hour feels simultaneously so real and so fantastic, it becomes handy that Meirelles provides proof over the closing credits that he and novelist Paulo Lins didn’t make all this up. When the cathartic but troubling conclusion is finally reached, we feel that we ourselves have been on a decades-spanning journey. It’s truly wild.

Beyond its sheer scope and surface perfection, what’s admirable above nearly all else in City of God is how it deals with the considerable violence; there’s tons of it, and it’s graphic, realistic, wrenching, a whole lot of it involving young children. But this is not a film made by cynics for cynics. Not once in 130 minutes does it even slightly glorify its body count; it stands above every American gangster movie I’ve seen in this regard. The indiscriminate murder and the way the film lingers on the pain it causes — the corruption it leaves in its wake, of people and places and wide spirit — is a spit in the eye to Joe Pesci killing someone for no reason in Goodfellas and having it passed off as a joke or a cute character flaw. Rather than serving an artificial thesis, as was the case in the Godfather films, the personalities of all of the characters are beautifully defined, as are their relationships, with the day-to-day normalcy of the Groovies, an easygoing gang of stoner kids, a contrast and undercurrent that never seems forced. L’il Ze (Leandro Firmino as an adult, Douglas Silva as a child) is one of the most fearsome villains in cinematic history, but he also crucially never seems a cipher or a lazily defined brute; Knockout Ned (Seu George) has the makings of an epic hero but the film deliberately undercuts him, as it does the initially inherent goodness of so many of the people it explores. The insight, then, is that violence requires no underlying psychosis in those it corrupts — the obviously kind-hearted Ned insists on no killing when he joins Carrot’s gang, and in a chilling but blackly humorous montage, we learn how quickly such a principle is forgotten.

I’m surprised that the backlash on this holds it as somehow exploitative. It certainly seems to me that you feel every cruel action and death that occurs onscreen here more than in most American films of its genre. The idea of glorifying L’il Ze’s evil is circumvented by the film’s insistence upon not flinching before his crimes: we see him kill a child, and assault a woman, and we see the child crying, we see the woman dancing and enjoying her life before he takes her. We see what we must to understand him as a despicable but complex figure. On the other hand, flippant or not, the long sequence in which Rocket tries to become a hoodlum and fails spectacularly is brimming with the kind of charm that proves even the bleakest film can hold some zest for life at its core.

Finally, there’s the matter of the sweep; the story in City of God so quickly grabs, throttles, and never loosens its grip. It’s so visceral and so complete an experience it’s hard to say what contributes most to this feeling. Certainly all of the elements mentioned above are part of it. Certainly the visual urgency has a bearing (the nightclub sequence is particularly breathtaking). But above and beyond everything else, City of God is a wonderful film and an immediate classic because it’s a perfect and magnificently honest coming-of-age story, a powerful document in its suggestion of the commonality of so, so much, across nation and class and race, vital at a time when difference between all of us is emphasized so heavily. This is the rare treasure: a modern film that is truly a masterpiece.

[Originally posted in 2007, with a few 2013-14 additions.]

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