The underbelly of cities has been told many times before. Whether it is in Polanski’s masterpiece “Chinatown,” or Danny Boyle’s adaptation of “Trainspotting,” the underworlds of society have been explored, opened to the public eye and seen in almost perfect lights. So what could “City of God” bring new to the table?
The movie is based on the novel by Paulo Lins. It is not a direct account of his life, but a fictionalization of his life in the slums of Rio de Janeiro.
The movie takes on the life decisions that must be made by a young boy in the impoverished area of the city. Join a gang, become a free-spirit, drug addict or run free and follow your dreams. Rocket’s (played by Alexandre Rodrigues) dream is to become a photographer. He wants to expose the world to his beautiful images, but also to what he ahs grown up seeing. He wants to tell stories with pictures. To do this he must play by the rules of where he lives.
As if growing up poor is not enough of a hampering for a young boy, then add on that his best friends, brother, and acquaintances all become involved in the gang life of the city to his trials and tribulations. He must fight off gang leaders who once were friends. He must survive the battles in the streets at night and during the day time. He must succeed in keeping his distance from the war that fights around him.
The film moves through time with great pace, remarkable characters—vile and beautiful. The editing by Daniel Rezende (“The Motorcycle Diaries”) is superb. Using modern technology to jump cut without it feeling forced but still needed. The movie’s frames have a sense of fulfillment, and purpose as each one seamlessly slides into the next.
To go with the editing is the cinematography by Cesar Charlone (“The Constant Gardner”) who uses the camera in remarkable ways. Framing each shot inside the city making it feel vast and expansive, as if it is the whole word, nothing is outside. But at the same time he creates a feeling like this world is closing in, breaking down the walls, and that soon it will crush the characters unless they break free. The cinematographer is one of those underappreciated positions on a film crew, but here Charlone’s contribution is felt. He along with Rezende create the fast paced world the movie moves in.
Direction for the film is nothing but superb. Fernando Meirelles (“The Constant Gardner,” “Blindness”) creates an image, and indistinguishable characters. He moves the film in directions that seem impossible to pull off. Much f the film rings with gunshots, but they don’t feel out of place. He helps frame the characters in their places, and gives each character a heart, not matter how black it may have become. He doesn’t shy away from the violence, he grabs hold of it and lets it tell the true story. There is no aggrandizing here. No lies.
This is filmmaking at its best. The tracking shots, long takes, and emotional camera bring to mind P.T. Anderson and Kubrick, with some Scorsese thrown in there too. Meirelles keeps the pace of the film and by the end your body is emotionally drained, your heart is weeping, and your eyes are blinking, but still seeing flashes of gun shots across eyelids.
The language barrier is broken in the film. Portuguese with English subtitles, always a throw-off for many crowds. Who wants to read subtitles when the action is going on? Well that barrier is broken here. A true sign that “City of God” is a great foreign film. Whenever language feels natural, as if it were rolling from your native tongue rather than that of the characters is the goal for a successful film across borders.
Many Americans see the struggle that goes into reading subtitles, instead of seeking out the feeling that the native words have over the meaning of the written ones at the bottom of the screen. Lying is what dubbing does. It breaks the feel of a film, but if a films subtitles only wash away and become a part of the dialogue then you have something special. Meirelles, Braulio Mantovani (writer of the screenplay) and the actors create this feeling. It is an authentic feeling in an authentic movie.
“City of God” is not one to miss.