Friday, June 3, 2011

City of God (Fernando Meirelles, Katia Lund)

A kiss for a joint.

A third viewing (or fourth perhaps).

Reading my old "City of God" review once more (a very short one at that), I can still visualize and feel through the praising adjectives that I've previously used (such as 'breathless', 'brilliant' and 'powerful'), the extreme awe and cinematic revelation that I have witnessed. And even after all those years when my copy of the film rested somewhere inside the bowels of my black CD wallet, popping it back once again in the DVD player reignites a personal film experience quite unprecedented. And watching it once more, although like visually revisiting a chaotic moral hellhole, proves one thing: its power, both from its narrative drive and its despicable yet richly molded characters, is purely inexhaustible.

As the knife appears out of the initial blackness and creates contact with the chopping block in the film's raw and frantic opening scene that shows the eponymous place's abundant disorder, we suddenly see a doomed chicken which suddenly broke free of a cook's hands and inspires a hood chase. The scene, shot as if drifting between carelessness and control, may simply look like a vignette-like slip-in to expose the life in the ironically named slums, but it is particularly vital for the film. In its entirety, with its non-linear progress, we eagerly anticipate the film's highs and lows as the protagonist Buscape (Rocket), played by Alexandre Rodrigues, narrates the brief but violent history of the place.

In a way, the film's narration is a cinematic comfort. It is a re-assurance, delivered both in a conversational glib and half poetics, that what we see on-screen isn't just witnessed by the fourth wall population that we are. Of course, it's adventurously insightful to see a film created out of a 'fly on the wall' perspective, but like De Niro's Sam Rothstein in Scorsese's "Casino", we need a distinct personality to somehow filter everything that occurs. And even though Buscape is neither special nor participatory in the film's crucial events, he is our bridge that leads us into the gang-overtaken, drug-financed urban mutation that is the 'Cidade de Deus' and the ever-investigative world of journalism (considering that he is an aspiring maverick photographer).

Analogically speaking, he is our Virgil into Ze' Pequeno's (Lil' Ze') (award-worthily played by non-actor Leandro Firmino) 'Inferno', and in this hell, there's no fires and brimstone but guns, trigger-happy fingers and lots of drugs. Now, for it being set in a repugnant slums and it being based on a true story, I think it's expected for those who still haven't seen the film to mention "uber realism" as its primary visual preference. But with its clever, stylish and fast-paced usage of flashback transitions and montages that are usually accompanied by percussive musics, it has elevated the film from being an excellently written crime film into a truly unforgettable representation of a modern masterpiece. One that shows violence through close range, observant eyes and redemption through distant but hopeful ones.

'Join in or die out'. that may ultimately be the clockwork maxim that runs through Lil' Ze' and other hoods' minds, but for Buscape' and, to a certain extent, Benny (Lil' Ze's best friend, played by Phellipe Haagensen), there's something in it for 'or', and it is worth a try.

"City of God", pitch-perfectly directed by Fernando Meirelles (who also directed the great "The Constant Gardener" and the quite abysmal "Blindness") and Katia Lund, does not condescend to the harsh realities of living the life of illegalities and crime. It criticizes, exposes and sometimes even understands, but it never looked upon the 'Cidade de Deus'' extreme alternative of a lifestyle with a fully raised eyebrow. I think the film concedes to its existence but never the pertinence of escape. With that, "City of God", albeit a transgressive facade, provides a slight relief.


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