Top Fifty Films of the 00s — Number Twenty-Six

#26 — City of God (Fernando Meirelles with Katia Lund, 2002)
I mean it as about the strongest compliment I can muster when I assert that City of God is reminiscent of Martin Scorsese at his rawest and most freewheeling. When confronted with a film as bold and rivetingly cavalier as this, it’s tempting to say that the filmmakers were happily oblivious to the “rules” that they’re theoretically supposed to follow. They haven’t lost their personality yet, subsumed their reckless instincts to the rigidity of safe, by-the-book filmmaking. Sometimes that’s true, but I don’t think it’s applicable here. The Scorsese comparison is especially helpful on this point. I don’t think for a moment that Scorsese had anything less than total command of the mechanics of narrative cinema, even in his earliest films. When he needs straightforwardness and clarity, he has it with a level of assurance that proves it’s not just happenstance. The same is true for Fernando Meirelles and his co-director, Katia Lund, in City of God. The film consistently exhibits the filmmakers’ sterling understanding of the grammar of their craft. It’s not that they don’t understand the vocabulary, it’s that they actively want to reshape it, create their own sort of slang, finding the earthiest, most pungent, most thrilling means to tell their story.

City of God is a tour de force of directing, which may have been necessary to get its incredibly complicated tale to the screen in a way that carried any meaning. Based on the autobiographical novel by Paulo Lins, the film is set in a suburb of Rio de Janeiro that is the site of treacherous and terrifying gang warfare. Throughout the film we are introduced to incredibly ferocious criminals, unpredictable live wires that stride through the streets with a sense of ownership and menacing pride. We are immersed in their world of palpable tension and tragically arbitrary violence, where the pettiest slights escalate into vicious battles of countless victims. Life and safety are playthings, nothing more. In this fraught world, the allegiances and betrayals are countless. It could easily become an indecipherable mash, a smear of kinetic aggression across the screen. Instead, Meirelles works with Lund to keep it shockingly clear, employing every technique imaginable. For instance, when it will enrich the story to provide the entire history of a crucial apartment, the filmmakers use a static shot with the different denizens through the years fading in and out as the genealogy of residence is explained. It’s a shot that calls attention to itself, but also a shot that delivers valuable information in the cleanest way possible. For all the dynamism of the imagery–and at times it does indeed seem like Meirelles and his marvelous band of collaborators are trying to use every striking idea they have for fear that no one will again give them access to movie cameras–it always serves the film, the story. Watch any few minutes on their own, and it will seem like filmmakers showing off. Watch the entire thing and it will seem like a masterpiece of covertly innovative storytelling.

Watching the entire film is key. It’s hard to think of many films that require dedicated viewing to quite the same degree as City of God. It often feels like every bit of the heavily bustling frame is filled with necessary details. Not everything is needed to understand the intricacies of the plot, but it all adds to the thorough realization of the precarious, damaged lives these characters are moving through with caution or fearlessness. All of it is thought through, all of it is meaningful. Those on the fringes of the story are so vividly alive that you can imagine the camera breaking off and following anyone, discovering a whole other movie in the process. It gives it all a smack of authenticity and demands full attention. You’re not hunting for clues about what’s to come, anticipating twists and tricks. Instead, you’re enticed to soak it all in, as if walking into a completely unfamiliar environment and needing to make sure you’ve figured out all the routes to the exits just in case something bad goes down.

Watching City of God is an exhausting endeavor. The swirl of the camera, the cacophony of violence, the thundering tumble of messages and insights all add up to an experience that is challenging as it assaults the senses with its very urgency. It is about ego and celebrity, craving and jealousy, those who rage against the world and those who hunker down and try not to get clipped by the crossfire. And is about the way all these things, the ugliest symptoms of the human condition, get passed down effortlessly from generation to generation, as if the only true birthright is trouble. Stare at it long enough and the film itself starts to transform into a sort of open wound, a glimpse at the internal ugliness of ourselves. It’s also, in its ingenuity and resonant spirit of reinvention, a patch against that pain. It reminds us the power of great art to illuminate, even as it’s scratching away at the soul.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

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