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598 - City of God 
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Assistant Second Unit Director

Joined: Tue May 03, 2011 8:39 pm
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Location: Juneau, Alaska
Post 598 - City of God
A Miramax Films release of a O2 Filmes production. Directed by Fernando Meirelles. Written by Bráulio Mantovani, from the novel by Paulo Lund. Rated R, for graphic violence, sexuality/nudity, drug use, and language. Running time: 130 minutes. Original Brazil theatrical release date: August 30, 2002. In Portuguese, with English subtitles.

“As far back as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a gangster.” This is the opening passage of Goodfellas, that sprawling gangster epic spanning four decades of Little Italy and told from the point of view of a low-level thug. I begin this write-up with the line, now one of the most famous in all of cinema, because the film containing it was unrivaled for years as the definitive statement about the mob (The Godfather, let’s face it, is really the definitive statement about family). That was before Fernando Meirelles’ City of God, which chronicles two decades in the world of the Brazilian criminal underworld, revealed a fresh approach to well-trodden territory. On one hand, the films are very similar in structure and style, using flashbacks and interesting framing techniques to set up their complicated and convoluted stories. The major difference between them lies in the nature of their narrators: In City of God, the protagonist is a young man nicknamed Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), and his revision of the above quote might sound something like, “As far back as I can remember, I never wanted to be a gangster, and I tried my damndest to avoid the inevitable fact that I would probably be a gangster sooner or later.”

What’s invaluable about City of God is that it makes clear that it is more difficult for young people growing up in the slums of Rio de Janeiro to not become a gangster; if they don’t willfully make that choice and spend the rest of their lives trying to avoid trouble, they will inevitably end up on the side of one of the warring gangs that occupy their housing complexes (called Cidade de Deus). And why not? Legitimate jobs offer only pennies in comparison to the money made in organized crime, and these children have to make a living to help support their impoverished families. And there doesn’t seem to be an alternative to crime within the city: The police are just as corrupt and operate only as an alternative gang on the block. What’s fascinating here is how Meirelles, like Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese before him, shoots the film completely from the inside of the mob’s secret world and thus reveals it as the natural, obvious choice for aspiring youths with dreams of fame and fortune.

Just about every write-up I’ve read of City of God compares it to Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas; while I do not merely want to be another voice in the crowd of online critics confirming this comparison, I do want to substantiate to my readers that this is without a doubt the best film about the mob since that 1990 benchmark. Indeed, the film’s opening sequences made me think instantly of Scorsese, with classic rock music playing over a furious and colorful collage of images including but not limited to guns, knives, chopped carrots, and slaughtered chickens. If I didn’t know the director was Meirelles, all I would have needed was the cue of “Gimme Shelter” to know that I was watching another Martin Scorsese Picture.

This comparison is a compliment to Meirelles’ natural cinematic technique, to which he quickly inserts with his own, original vision. Before we meet a single character, before we hear a world of dialogue, we are already drawn into this fully-realized world of violence that captivates us from the very first frame to the very last. City of God is at once a serious, sad film for its subject matter and a joyful one for its passionate skills and vibrant life. In decades to come, it will be studied by loyal students of cinema for its sheer filmmaking skills alone and be met with the same, slack-jawed awe that we feel when we encounter it for the first time. Indeed, shot-by-shot analysis classes were made for this kind of vibrant, utterly spectacular editing and direction: Not a single moment seems distracting; not a fast edit or long take is out of place. It is an absolute joy to watch.

The lull spent between writing the previous paragraph and this one was significant, because I am trying to decide which scene I can give you as an example of Meirelles’ superior skill. Even between these sentences, I just cross my arms and stare at my notes. There are so many to choose from, and indeed each is so unique and creative, that I could only describe the technique to you without capturing the soul of Meirelles’ film. Choosing one scene to discuss will also fail to fully describe Meirelles’ overall visual flair. I will say that the director uses the camera—really uses it—to simultaneously reveal the attractive rush of mob life and to make a case against it. It is a case that no one in the film can articulate—even Rocket does not criticize the mob so much as he simply would rather not participate in its violent webs. So Meirelles’ camera does the work for us, and reveals very clearly the evil that these characters do not see.

An example of his strategy is actually my favorite single shot of the film. It concerns a dangerous (is there any other kind?), weasely gangster named Li’l Ze (portrayed by Leandro Firmino, in one of the best performances I have ever seen) implementing his dark form of hood justice. He has just cornered two children hoodlums who rob and steal without his permission. Li’l Ze’s idea of power is to terminate all competition, and he does not hesitate to teach these two a lesson on behalf of their entire elementary school gang: He shoots the youngest in the foot, and initiates a child around the same age into his gang by convincing him to shoot the other child dead. This all happens with building intensity and sadness, as Mierelles cuts back and forth between the child-victim and the child-killer with the bleeding, wounded child’s pained screams serving as the segue between them. That’s the setup; here is my favorite shot: After the child with the gun has given into Li’l Ze’s pressures and committed murder, Mierelles lingers on the newly initiated kid from behind as he holds his gun and examines it with the curiosity of—well, of a child. In front of him, his first victim is out of focus—still and ghostlike. It is a tender moment of reflection from a director who observes, records, and uses his camera to softly critique. He sees what the characters do not: A child is dead, another has lost his soul, and this is only a microcosm of such events that happen every day in the City of God.

See now, if you’re just reading the above paragraph, you might be wondering how in hell I can recommend a film that graphically shows children killing other children without remorse or hesitation. But remember Ebert’s rule: It’s not what a film is about, but how it is about it. Now that you’ve read about this scene, go ahead and experience it and the film surrounding it. You will encounter a sympathetic look at mobsters that doesn’t excuse their actions so much as it gives them context and reminds us that, to paraphrase Mary Wollstonecraft, bad people are not evil because they want to be evil—they simply mistake evil for the good that they desire. Consider the way Li’l Ze smiles with glee whenever he pulls the trigger; he enjoys this. But also think about Rocket’s observation that with Ze’s iron fist keeping a close tabs on thieves and drug dealing, he actually cleans up the neighborhood and makes it safer to walk around at nights. In this complex dichotomy lies the heart of this film’s characters, and every act of violence is followed by an ironic pause that considers its repercussions. In the meantime, Mierelles’ camera is quick to observe the violence of this way of life and shoot it as an ongoing tragedy. His camera, which become our eyes, recognizes this evil, shakes its head sadly at the weary paradox of this world, and asks us to sympathize if not forgive.

Mon May 09, 2011 9:26 pm
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Assistant Second Unit Director

Joined: Tue May 03, 2011 8:39 pm
Posts: 58
Location: Juneau, Alaska
Post Re: 598 - City of God

The effect is sort of a reversal of Goodfellas, whose narrator never hesitates to commit murderous acts and only regrets that he got caught. His coked-up desperation in the film’s closing moments finally confirms the pathetic nature of his lifelong work in the mob. Scorsese always shoots his protagonist as a man who realizes his opportunities as a gangster and lusts after his own power. His ultimate flaw is that he takes himself too seriously. Here, Mierelles moves forward as if we are already aware of Goodfellas and its punch-line, and so he shoots with an eye that is fully aware of the sadness and irony of these proceedings. Rocket, an insider who wishes to be outside, stands in the center of the film; he is an articulate young man who instinctually knows, despite his circumstances, that there is a higher road that is harder to attain but more likely to grant him a longer life.

Rocket’s role as narrator actually reminds me of another Scorsese film, Gangs of New York (2002), which has a strategy that reaches all the way back to Dickens: To place a normal, straight-faced character into the narrative’s focus and thus make him the filter through which we view an array of complex, twisted, colorful, and sometimes downright bizarre personalities. Such personalities include head mobster Li’l Ze, who is an electrical ball of deadly energy, and his arch-nemesis Carrot (Matheus Nachtergaele), who spends most of his time plotting Ze’s demise with Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge), a brick wall of a man with a personal vendetta against Li’l Ze. Both gangs purchase illegal firearms from a wild-eyed Italian called Uncle Sam (Phellipe Haagensen), whose secret source for these black market items turns into one of the biggest surprises in the film. Li’l Ze’s best friend is Benny (Phellipe Haagensen), the self-appointed “nicest hood on the block;” he sports a ridiculous afro and somehow succeeds in putting together parties in which all the rival gangs come together and do not try to kill each other. Benny rivals Rocket for the affection of Angélica (Alice Braga), a beautiful beach-bum who chooses her daily lovers according to who can supply her with the best weed.

By the end of the film, not many of these characters will still be living, but they all resonate as memorable exaggerations of the way we perceive street hoods. In a way, they confirm that even the noblest of people will be corrupted as soon as they pick up a gun; as Rocket sadly observes: “On the first day, the rule is that innocent people will not be killed. On the second day, we find an exception to the rule. On the third day, the exception becomes the rule.”

These characters would seem outlandishly over-the-top, if not for Rocket’s calm disposition that always sees them as real human begins. We are not surprised to learn that City of God is based on a true story—indeed, it is inspired by the memoirs of the real-life Rocket, who went on to become a renowned photographer for the Brazilian media. We like these characters because Rocket likes them, even as he fears them. And we naturally like Rocket, as he struggles with his role in the world of crime. In the film’s most heartwarming scenes, he and a friend decide to give into pressure and become criminals once and for all; they carry a gun and move from person to person in an attempt to find someone to rob. Unfortunately, they are nervous and make small talk with their potential victims, and learn that you cannot put a gun in the face of someone who you like (“We can’t rob him. He’s too cool!”).

The final scene of the film is simultaneously one of sadness and triumph, and Mierelles earns these dichotomies and the rift we feel from experiencing both at the same time. Yes: the crimes and killing goes on, primarily by children who are forced to grow up too soon. In one of the best scenes, a child is asked, “How can you do these things? You are just a kid!” The child’s response, which seems perfectly reasonable to him: “I’m not a kid. I drink, smoke, do coke, and I kill. I’m a man!” Mierelles pulls performances out of the children performers so that we can believe such sentiments. And here, in the last scene, as such children wander off down the street and fantasize about who they will kill next, the camera forlornly watches them drift away into their inevitable fates. But before we linger on them, we have already seen Rocket happily step out of the frame, and his conclusion fills us with hope and warmth. What a terrible, wonderful journey he has taken: He has escaped a terrible destiny, beaten fate, and survived unscathed to tell the tale. So no, the killing will never fully stop. But here is a youth who can honestly say that he never pointed a gun at anyone, and thus earned the title of man fairly. City of God weaves its way through violence and despair and, in finding the honest of soul of Rocket in its center, earns the right to be joyful.

Mon May 09, 2011 9:26 pm
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