In the beginning, we see the blade of the chicken butcher's slaughtering knife ceaselessly moving against its sharpening stone: Is the hand which moves this blade that of the World's expansively oblivious postmodern civilization? Commercial societies who no longer have legitimate uses for the throwaway children? Political leaders who want their bodies to man their armies and police forces? Fanatical religious leaders who value them mainly for their souls, or as suicide bombers? The Evil One and mob kingpins who never seem to rest in their need to corrupt and prostitute the young? Or does the opening scene of Brazil's new Oscar contender for Best Foreign Film represent in some incomprehensible fashion, a divine plan for the CITY OF GOD?
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This harsh, brutal movie leaves us with no easy answers. Perhaps the fact that one chicken escapes the red harvest may be a clue.
But we are literally ahead of our story
Fernando Meirelles, another director from the modern jungle of TV commercials, has created one of the transcendent movies about urban "los de abajo" in the modern World. In a kaleidoscope, of techniques, themes and homage, Meirelles and his more feature film-experienced partner, Katia Lund, tell over 30-odd years the story of "The Tender Trio," a group of street kids from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. At the same time, the Directors chronicle the steadily mounting cruelty and violence in the slums of modern cities.
Based on a monumental Brazilian best-selling autobiographical novel by Paulo Lins, CITY OF GOD begins ambitiously in a prologue without credits (which is really a flash-forward), and then drops back to the 1960's, when "The Tender Trio" were small wannabes in the bowels of Cidade de Deus, the oldest housing project in Rio. From a struggling family emerges Sandro Cenoura (Alexandre Rodrigues), known as "Rocket," a dreamy lad, tall for his age and social condition. Rocket is not quite in his teens, but he wants to lose his virginity, make money and become somebody, in no particular order. His obverse, a "runt of runts," is an orphan, Ze Pequeno (Douglas Silva), who has been taunted and brutalized because of his small size and homeliness to the edge of psychopathy. The third member, Bene, lives up to his name.
After experimenting with pot, and longing for pistols of their own, they are at last given a chance to take part in a big heist by the older guys. The plan is to attack a motel, where well-heeled men go to meet girlfriends and prostitutes. After holding up the staff, the guys begin to break in on room after room, tying up the naked couples, and taking their clothes. The Tender Trio act as lookouts, and the gang escapes with a small fortune, but when the police arrive to find an inexplicable blood bath, everyone has to go on the run.
Ten or fifteen years pass, and Rocket (Matheus Nachtergaele), now grown into young manhood, comes into possession of a camera, and his ambitions for a career as photographer begin to grow. He has unconsciously cast himself in the role of an observer. Ze Pequeno, now called Lil Ze (Leandro Fermino), has risen to hard drug lord of his favela. Profoundly ignorant, seething with virulent anger at he knows not exactly what, his murderous nature and instability drives from him all but the most greedy and brutal. Rocket understands his boyhood friend's development and, while fascinated by the gang leader's curious success, steers clear of the man's anger. Young Bene (Philippe Haagensen), meanwhile, has flourished in every way a youth of his position can. He is handsome and graceful, lighter in skin color, with a natural intelligence and grace, and therefore he draws Lil Ze's jealousy and anger. He soon forms a partnership with another light skinned leader to sell higher grade cocaine to a young clientele from wealthier sections of Rio.
Therein lies the plot.
Rocket's friendship with Bene allows him to visit with impunity the fabled beaches under Sugar Loaf. Here, he meets "the Girl," Angelica (Alice Braga -- Sonia's niece). Of different classes, they nevertheless enjoy an idyl: Long days on the beach, Rocket making her his photographer's model, she enjoying his skillful attention, they looking at the profound sea and into each other eyes. Yet, there are no mutual plans for a future.
Then, Bene walks onto the beach again, and it is all over for Rocket's romance.
A character nicknamed Mane Galinha or "Knockout Ned" (Seu Jorge) is introduced, who acts a kind of catalyst for a building third act, another ten years later, in which a gang war resolves many of the individual personal conflicts. But not the catastrophic issue derived from growing percentages of the young in generational gangs in every city of the World, not to mention terrorist and revolutionary groups in vast agricultural and primitive areas. That threat is represented, in the final act, by a new crop of runts, drunk on the most powerful drugs, wielding automatic weapons almost too large or too heavy for them to lift.
A picture that Rocket takes of one gang battle, the beginnings of which we have seen earlier, is put on the front page of a Rio newspaper, and he is given by the editors a splendid f/2 wide lens camera and the task of following the campaigns of Lil Ze, who fancies a role as a media icon. Much of the latter part of CIDADE DE DEUS is seen through Rocket's range finder.
Directors Meirelles and Lund have devised a staggering film: its Wellsian opening; its Scorsesian main characters; its screenplay by Braulio Montovani, which uses chapter headings from Lins' decades-in-the-writing novel; its use of Cesar Charlone's digital and handheld camera sequences on varied stocks; its non-linear, jump-cut yet surprisingly coherent cutting by Editor Daniel Rez; its multi-speaker sound stage (which carries a musical score by Ed Cortes and Antonio Pinto, which represents almost a history of Brazilian popular music in the past three decades); its constant but de-emphasized reference to the multiplicity of racism in the favelas; and its matter-of-fact sense that the round of generations, and the many of unspeakable images they call up, are perfectly normal in the World we and out leaders are heedlessly creating.
Most astounding is that all the principal players are amateurs from the slums. Meirelles and Lund selectd 200 men, women and children from the favelas. Then they trained them through workshops for over eight months to achieve these candid and believable performances.
The year 2000 brought an extraordinary trio of films on the general subject of slum kids: *AMORES PEROS (Mexico, Inarritu), *THE LADY OF OUR ASSASSINS (Columbia, Schroeder) and *REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (USA, Aronofsky). It is a long way from D.W. Griffiths' keystone GANGSTERS OF NEW YORK (1914) or William Wyler's Dead End Kids and Humphrey Bogart in DEAD END (1937) -- or certainly Martin Scorsese's stylized pageantry in the current *GANGS OF NEW YORK -- to these bleak films, but we should recognize that we Americans have cinematically provided something of a model for the juvenile gang in both Art and in Reality. CITY OF GOD is a worthy addition to the genre, building on its beginnings.
CITY OF GOD: a film that is hard to look at, but equally hard to turn away from.
Reviews of some of the films mentioned above:
*AMORES PERROS --
*GANGS OF NEW YORK --
*OUR LADY OF THE ASSASSINS --
*REQUIEM FOR A DREAM --
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