September 08, 2012

City of God

City of God (2002) shows us the other side of tourist cities that present themselves as Paradise. Rio de Janeiro, one of those enchanting places that people go to on their honeymoons, is revealed as the seat of horrifying crimes and widespread poverty. It's a mesmerizingly sad, almost documentary account of the waste and violence that accompany a broken system of extreme rich and extreme poor.  The Rio in City of God is a world of children aspiring to be drug dealers, families holding up gasoline truck drivers out of desperation, gang warfare escalating to the point of all-out bloodbaths, police corruption, and the indifference of the upper-class. Hell and Paradise are never more than arm's length apart from each other in the world of City of God. Directors Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund have created a rich tapestry of crime: we see it from the point-of-view of "Rocket" (Alexandre Rodrigues), an aspiring photographer who's trying to navigate the slums without being changed by them.

This may be the first movie in recent memory that doesn't get even the slightest kick out of the violence it portrays. It feels like a coming-of-age story, and there's a certain innocent charm that wafts through every scene, an innocence that persists even when it's violated by what's happening on screen. Granted, much of the killing isn't as graphic as it could have been. The camera mercifully doesn't show it when a boy is forced to shoot another boy by the grand thug of Rio, Li'l Ze (Leandro Firmino). But the effect is there: There's no glory in brutality here. Only horror. It's sobering, but also fascinating. City of God isn't trying to give us a morality play: something for which we can congratulate ourselves for sitting through. It's not that pretentious. The filmmakers care too much about crafting a compelling story to worry about shoving morals down the throats of the audience. The immorality of the situation gets through just fine without the film being preachy, and while I wouldn't say City of God is a good time--even though it is more entertaining that you might expect--it's certainly a rich experience: it leaves a far deeper impression, and the image of the glistening tourist districts, which eludes the film, pops up in your mind by virtue of its absence on the screen. Which is the real fiction? It's pretty clear.

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