(originally published in The Outreach Connection in February 2003)
The favourite for this year’s Oscar for best foreign film must be the Brazilian City of God, directed by Fernando Meireilles. It helps its chances a lot that Pedro Almodovar’s Talk to Her is ineligible because its home country, Spain, didn’t submit it for consideration. Still, City of God would be a worthy winner of the award. It’s a film of enormous skill and scope, fusing serious purpose with canny entertainment values. And it marks yet another step forward in the amazing advance of South American cinema.
City of God
The “city of God” is a hellish slum in Rio de Janeiros, and the film intertwines several stories about the boys who grow up there, usually to become drug dealers or hoodlums. It’s a dirt-poor environment where parents are largely absent, and so is a sense of much of anything except the pragmatic appeal of lawlessness and anarchy. Meireilles is an award-winning director of commercials who leaps into this, his debut film, with the confidence of an established master. He turns the milieu into the world’s rattiest circus, marshalling the constant conflict and misery and danger into a ceaseless swirl of incident.
The film’s received some very high praise. Roger Ebert judged the picture the second best of last year, behind Spielberg’s Minority Report. He wrote: “In its actual level of violence, City of God is less extreme than Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, but the two films have certain parallels. In both films, there are really two cities: the city of the employed and secure, who are served by law and municipal services, and the city of the castaways, whose alliances are born of opportunity and desperation. Those who live beneath rarely have their stories told.”
“City of God,” concluded Ebert, “does not exploit or condescend, does not pump up its stories for contrived effect, does not contain silly and reassuring romantic sidebars, but simply looks, with a passionately knowing eye, at what it knows.”
I like the film, but I doubt I’m alone in finding that a bit much. Those who live beneath rarely have their stories told? In fact, don’t movies contain a disproportionate percentage of assassins, drug dealers and all-purpose “sickos”? The new South American cinema (judging at least by the admittedly thin sample of it that’s been shown commercially here) barely seems able to tell any other stories.
And as for simply looking at what it knows – well, a two-hour movie necessarily involves a multitude of choices about it knows or doesn’t know. But in this case it’s undeniable that the movie’s points are pretty much made after the first hour. Up to that point we’re still gearing ourselves up to the film’s imaginative velocity. Beyond that it keeps on going, becoming more and more wrapped up in a single drugwar story that becomes increasingly mundane. The movie never loses its feeling for real pain and incident, for the intimate moment that drives home the cost of this machismo, but these moments increasingly seem like appendages to its central momentum.
What it knows
The comment about “simply looking” is off in another way too. City of God has a structure that travels back and forth through time; a voice over that refers to plot strands to be revealed later, or doubles back to clarify something that passed before. For all its immersion in the moment, it’s a technique that conveys a restlessness with what’s before it, a yearning to be somewhere else. In Alfonso Cuaron’s Y tu Mama tambien, the plot kept swerving off to explore the destinies of various secondary characters. City of God isn’t quite that volatile, but it foregoes the humanist patience of a movie that just looks.
On the whole, my own views are closer to David Edelstein in Slate. He writes: “The violence in City of God isn’t glorified, but it doesn’t get under your skin and haunt you, either – which is odd when you consider the movie’s sociopolitical trappings…and how many kids end up eating bullets on-screen. The only moment that rips the pulp fabric is when Lil’ Ze hands a gun to a boy known as Steak-and-Fries and commands him to choose which of two delinquent “runts” to shoot – one of whom looks 6 years old and suddenly begins to sob like the small child that he is. That infantile keening cuts through the camera’s wry objectivity. It’s the only time we ever think ‘Don’t shoot,’ instead of ‘Duck!’”
He’s right about the documentary-like tug of that scene (Katia Lund, who helped Meireilles in marshalling non-professional actors and navigating unfriendly terrain, is credited as co-director, which must indicate an unusually hefty contribution). And it’s not quite true the film never attains that level elsewhere – for instance, the Lil’ Ze character (he’s a child thug who grows up to be a drug dealer) has some moments of murderous rage that I found chilling.
But the sheer pace of the film, the relentlessness of its bad news, mitigates the effect of any particular incident. The emotional impact flattens out rather than accumulating. I sometimes worry, watching a film like this, that the sort of comment I just made reflects my own sheltered unfamiliarity with violence; that I wrongly assume it could only ever come, if at all, in small bursts, so that any kind of sustained violence must be by definition melodramatic. But I don’t worry about it for long, because such ignorance is far preferable to the alternative.
At the opposite end of the movie scale in just about every respect, Roger Donaldson’s The Recruit is a film of no social relevance and run-of-the-mill style. It’s about a young CIA recruit (Colin Farrell) led by his trainer (Al Pacino) into a complex plot where – as the movie keeps reminding us to the point of tedium – nothing is what it seems. Since we know from the start to mistrust everything the film seems to be telling us, there’s little practical option while watching it other than to put our brains on snooze.
The major compensation – and it is a major one – is Pacino, in an incredibly imaginative and charismatic performance. Virtually every line he speaks has a cadence or a shading that you can’t imagine coming from any other actor – and it’s not just eccentricity, for somehow it fuses into a compelling character. And for about the tenth time in his career, he has a rambling closing monologue so out of step with the pedestrian dialogue preceding it that he must have written it himself. Pacino almost convinces you you’re watching something profound – an achievement maybe only slightly less impressive than City of God.