This blog contains material I wrote and posted on between the years 2005 and 2011 only. It does not contain any new material. For newer writing, please check my main blog (Bill the Butcher).

Saturday, 24 November 2012

City of God (Review)

Rio de Janeiro, Brasil. What do you think of when you hear that name? Copacabana Beach? The Carnaval with its lovely mostly-nude dancers? The scenes we saw on Hollywood films? Or something else...
This film is about the something else.
The denizens of one of the favelas of Rio, notorious for drugs and gang violence, were partly resettled in the sixties in a new housing project in Rio, called City of God. By the early eighties it was one of the most dangerous places on earth, riven by violence and crime - some of that crime being committed by the police who were supposed to prevent it.
The film is seen through the eyes of the narrator, Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), a poor and none too brave young man who has the (mis)fortune to be blessed with a keen photographic sense. Both directly, as seen through his own eyes, and indirectly, narrating offscreen, he brings to life the savage violence of a very savage City.
There are many characters, and the events of the film span several years, but because of the unrelenting pace and the shifting of the perspective to the "stories" of the various characters, there is none of the slowness and (dare one say it) the monotony of the typical film of this sort.
It opens with what would seem a comic scene, a group of armed gangsters chasing a chicken through the streets...until they come face to face with a rival gang, Rocket caught in the middle. From there it abruptly cuts to the origins of the City, with people being brought in to their ramshackle little township with its red earth roads. Crime begins almost immediately, and the protagonists make their first appearance as juveniles, a nascent gang called the Tender Trio (one of whom is Rocket's elder brother) robbing a brothel, the people who were robbed all ending up mysteriously dead.
The movie is divided into three chapters, each bleaker and more appalling than the one before; they parallel the intertwining destinies of Rocket and one of his childhood playmates, Li'l Dice (Douglas Silva). In the first part, the Tender Trio rob the brothel and their gang disintegrates; only one of the three survives to escape. It becomes known only later that it is Li'l Dice who (not allowed to join in the robbery and kept as lookout) shot the robbed hookers and their clients.
After growing up and changing his nickname to Li'l Zé (Leandro Firmino da Hora takes over the role), he ascends into a trigger-happy drug dealer and local kingpin, who enjoys killing and takes over rivals by eliminating them. Li'l Ze is incidentally MY candidate for top acting honours here. The only thing keeping his crazier impulses in check is his lieutenant Benny (Phellipe Haagensen), a smart, good-hearted gangster with a hippie sensibility who eventually decides to abandon the criminal life. He is shot dead accidentally in the course of his own farewell party.
The final third, set in the early 1980's, finds Li'l Zé's empire threatened by an even younger crew of pre-teenage gangsters called the Runts (some of them only 9 and 10), who disregard his authority. It all builds to a showdown between Li'l Zé and a rival band led by Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge), a peaceful bus conductor who turns to gang war for revenge after Li'l Zé rapes his girlfriend and shoots his brother.
If this was a Hollywood flick, it would end with the heroic Knockout Ned destroying the evil Ze. Instead, Knockout Ned's effort merely makes the bad far worse, with open gang war and children joining the two sides just for the hell of it, wielding guns they hardly know how to use. And it is at this time that one is forced to confront the question of who is worse, Ze or his enemies. I never could decide, myself.
Rocket, meanwhile, makes a godawful and comic mess of his own foray into crime (he lets one potential victim get away because the man was "too cool", for example) and when his photos of Ze's gang get published (accidentally, he fears he might get murdered for them) he ends up as a sort of court photographer for the publicity-famished Ze. The last, blood-soaked scenes of the film are mostly seen with Rocket as eyewitness and reporter.
"City of God" was shot in the streets of Rio with hand held cameras and a mostly nonprofessional cast. This adds immensely to its value as a film, giving a grainy touch of reality to its scenes.
It's riven with violence, such as the scene where a little boy is given the choice of being shot in the head or foot by Ze. As the foot-shot kid hobbles away, Ze orders him not to limp. And so on.
Extremely highly recommended, but not if you're squeamish. 

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