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City Without Pity
by Lucius Shepard
March 16, 2003

It’s doubtful that you’ve heard of Fernando Meirelles, the first-time director of the ultra-stylish Brazilian gang film City of God, but let me assure you, you’ll be hearing about him before too long, because if the Hollywood players have their way, he’ll be directing Spiderman V or Hulk Eats Predator or some such palliative for the Attention Deficit Disorder set. This is because City of God, for all its virtues—and they are considerable—is the sort of dazzling, show-offy cinematic bait that traditionally lands fat studio contracts for young and/or new foreign directors who have a yen for upward mobility. Like its close kin and predecessor, Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu’s Amores Perros, it is not so much a film that derives from the director’s home country, but rather an exemplar of what has been called “internationalized cinema” (read Americanized cinema). Its rhythms are not the rhythms of the samba or the carioca, but those of the jump-cut, the freeze frame, and the digitalized scans that have become commonplace in the post-Matrix movie environment; and though the film is ostensibly about impoverished street children who turn to crime in order to survive, it owes absolutely nothing to Pixote, the great neo-realist Brazilian film that dealt essentially, albeit much more humanely, with the same subject, nor does it fit within the tradition of other similar films like Bunuel’s Los Olvidados, Garin Nogroho’s Leaf on a Pillow, and Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay. Instead, City of God’s chief influences are the work of Quentin Tarantino, John Woo, and Martin Scorsese. Especially that of Scorsese. It is his over-praised Goodfellas that Meirelles utilizes as a rough template for his tale of the horrific Rio De Janeiro favela (slum) known as Cidade de Deus.

Based on the massive autobiographical novel by Paolo Lins; hyperkinetic and energized by a cool, mostly American soundtrack; lent cohesion by a chatty and rather oddly emotionally disengaged voiceover delivered by Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), a young boy who dreams of becoming a photographer and thus finding a better life beyond the City of God, the movie opens during the Sixties, a relatively innocent period (Meirelles uses a yellow filter to convey a feeling of nostalgia), not long after the construction of the favela by the government, its purpose being to house the poor and homeless. Times were tough, yet not hopeless. Things were bad but not evil. Over the next fifteen years, however, as the poverty level rises and desperation breeds increasing violence, cocaine and impulse killing take the place of marijuana and muggings, a nightmarish transformation that runs concurrent with the transformation of a giggling homicidal child of the slums into the sociopathic ganglord of the 70s and 80s, Little Ze (Firminho da Hora). Ze seems not so much born as to have stepped into the world from some darker place bearing a pistol. His penchant for killing allows him to become king of the favela’s drug trade and then the favela itself, casually slaughtering anyone who presents or seems to present an impediment to his least whim. Yet even as Ze is provided his fifteen minutes of fame by newspaper photographs of him taken by Rocket, it becomes apparent that his reign is imperiled by two wildly different rivals. First, Knockout Ned, a formerly peaceful bus driver who has turned to robbing banks because only by becoming a criminal can he hope to gain revenge against Ze, who once raped his fiancée. Secondly, the Runts, a pitiful yet horrifying band of pre-pubescent children who—like Ze, only more so—care little about life, whether it be their own lives or others'.

Meirelles eschews the traditional three-act structure and instead presents us with a masterpiece of Pulp Fictionesque storytelling, a rich tapestry of crisscrossing storylines and events, some of which are revisited over and over again. In one remarkable sequence, the history of the drug trade in the favela is narrated by a single unmoving camera that records in a series of dissolves years of perfidy and bloodshed. In another, the apparently senseless killing of Knockout Ned by a teenage member of his own gang is explained in a retrospective montage that ferrets out the boy’s motive, one that reflects a mighty irony. Vividly drawn characters flash before our eyes. There’s Steak-and-Fries, a ten-year-old wannabe gangster whom Little Ze provides with a gun and then forces to choose between two cowering boys and kill one of them. There’s Carrot (Matheus Nachtergaele, last seen in Walter Sales’ Central Station), Ze’s rival in the drug trade, a cunning, smiling sub-villain. We are briefly introduced to a snitch who buries his wife alive inside their home and a friendly neighbor lady who explains how to achieve sexual pleasure with a heated banana. And then there’s Ze’s second-in-command, Benny (Phellipe Haagansen), an intelligent and basically good-hearted felon with a hippie lifestyle and a fondness for Hawaiian shirts who succeeds in keeping Ze somewhat under control. When Benny eventually decides to abandon the criminal life and run off to a farm with his girlfriend, the farewell party he arranges for himself degenerates into strobe-lit disco mayhem (orchestrated to the strains of “Kung Fu Fighting”) and forms the film’s most spectacular set piece. Yet somehow all this glitter and cleverness lacks emotional weight and fails to deliver on its promise of social significance. There is no great mythic figure, no Michael Corleone, not a single character whose complexity is sufficient to command our interest and make us care about his fate. Nor are we given much of a feeling for the favela’s ordinary life—and it is full of ordinary life, of people who do not kill and sell drugs, who ride bicycles to work and do laundry behind their homes and get a little drunk while watching a soccer match and keep pet birds, who survive the most poignant horror of that place and time, the ceaseless grind of poverty. There’s more to these lives than death, but death is most of what we’re shown. Because of this, we have the sense that the violent threads of the favela have been isolated in order to glamorize and sensationalize them, to turn us on. Meirelles, one of Brazil’s most successful directors of commercials, treats death as if it were a hot new product that everyone’s dying to have. It’s clear he wants to make our heads spin, our eyes bulge, to evoke gasps and “wows,” but never intends to touch our hearts. We are immersed to a tabloid-depth in the stories of all these fascinating characters, yet not any deeper. Thus, what we are ultimately left with is something on the order of a juiced-up Blaxploitation flick that, at more than two hours running time, aspires to the epic.

This isn’t to say that City of God is not a good movie, an entertaining movie. It is both good and entertaining. Considerably more so than the movies from which it derives its style, and immeasurably more accomplished than, say, Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. And that style, though derivative, is employed by Meirelles with greater fluidity and imagination than ever it was by his mentors. However, as with the Hollywood blockbusters that Meirelles will one day surely come to direct, style and blood manage to say nothing that illuminates and ask the audience no questions that nag at us after we have walked away. We are not enlivened, but numbed. It’s as if we have been shown a terrible thing, a gruesome, savage spectacle, and of it we retain not the faces of the doomed slumdwellers, nor anything of their dreams, their fugitive hopes, but only a patina of glitter that, like moonlight on water, swiftly fades to black.