“City of God”: Love and Rocket

I watched the 2003 favela gangster film City of God last night, and I have little to add to Victor Morton’s insightful review:

…[T]he hyper-caffeinated style in CITY OF GOD is just breathtaking and entertaining as all get-go — the orange-clay look of the 50s segment, a bravura one-shot dissolve through the history of a single room in the favela over decades, the repeated freeze-frames, a 360-degree stop-motion shot, the great sequence of Benny’s “leaving the life” party. And it’s not all that Old Razzle-Dazzle. Mereilles understands the importance of counterpoint. In the midst of Benny’s party, which is basically all hurtling, exhilirating “flow,” the shot I most remember (maybe more than any other single shot in a movie this year) is the scene’s one moment of “ebb.” Mereilles holds for several seconds, but it feels like an eternity, on the face of Ze Pequeno (think the Joe Pesci character in GOODFELLAS), as it dawns on him that all his machismo isn’t getting him the thing he wants most. And as the dance floor lights flash, the opening bars of Carl Douglas’ “Kung Fu Fighting” swell up (oh … hoh-hoh-hoh …). The look on the face of actor Leandro Firmino da Hora, a nonprofessional like most of the (terrific) cast, says everything and nothing at the same time.

But CITY OF GOD is more than an empty exercise in cinematic fireworks. One of the keys to seeing what it is about is to notice how few of the significant deaths (and there are a *lot* in this movie) come deliberately from an expected source. Neither Ze Pequeno nor Ned the vigilante kills the other, though their feud is what drives the last hour of the movie. Probably the most-memorable death is a botched attempt to kill someone else. Your downfall is never what you expect, precisely because you’re on guard against that. But life forces so many unthinking and habitual actions on us that we can never quite know what will turn out to have been the important ones. “Life can be lived forward, but can only be understood backward,” Kierkegaard said. One’s character and a polity are defined by what they take as ordinary and taken-for-granted, *not* what is self-consciously agonized over. That’s the reason for the initially deliberately misleading gaps in the narrative (e.g., we’re at first cued to think a massacre at a brothel is the work of the police).

Although most of the central characters meet the fate you expect, the film becomes richer on second viewing (the classic test for a great-vs.-merely-good movie) because you see each man sow the seeds of his doom, but he’s never cognizant of it and Meirelles does nothing to make *us* cognizant of it on first viewing. But (and here’s the movie’s genius), in retrospect, it makes perfect sense. One of the great strengths of CITY OF GOD, and what allows it to do this, is that it creates a real sense of a teeming world beyond the edges of the screen.

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My only additional comment is that the movie felt like some of the especially grim installments of Los Bros. Hernandez’s Love and Rockets comics–”Holidays in the Sun,” maybe. There’s the looping back and forth in time, the persistence of childhood friendships, the sudden brutal hand of fate, that “teeming word beyond the edges” of the page, the nicknames (L’il Ze, Knockout Ned, Goose, Shaggy), the splashy visuals. Even that runaway chicken feels like it might have accompanied Izzy Ortiz on her haunted trip to Mexico. The occasional use of split-screen, and the decision to mark different segments of the story with titles like “The Story of the Tender Trio” and “The Story of the Apartment,” enhances the comic-book feel.

I had this thought well before I realized that the main character’s nickname is actually “Rocket,” so I’m not just drawing this comparison so I can use a catchy post title! Anyway, that’s a very small footnote to a big, propulsive and compelling film.

About Eve Tushnet

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