Children of a
Fernando Meirelles, Brazil, 2002
Posted: March 16,
Fernando Meirelles' City of God inhabits the worst slum in Rio
de Janeiro with an intimately stylish acceptance that what we're seeing is
not something to be saved, but rather an ingrained way of life, an
exhibition of the ordinary, where life is cheap and salvation is
nonexistent. Meirelles isn't out to pass judgment; like the young, budding
photographer Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), who seeks to escape the slums
by shooting film rather than a handgun, he simply captures what he sees.
Judgment is irrelevant in a world where the only rule that matters is
surviving long enough to see the next sunrise or earning enough to put
bread on the table. Occasional lapses in this refreshingly noninvasive
approach to storytelling -- i.e., inserting actual plot -- detracts from
the film's impact, but through its energy, style, wit and horror, City
of God easily stands as one of the more impressive cinematic
achievements to come out of Brazil.
Through the likable, guileless Rocket, we are given a window into the
history of the housing facility during the 1960s through the early '80s,
following a group of children through adolescence and into young
adulthood, watching them fight, struggle, modestly prosper and then,
ultimately, die. Little Ze (Leandro Firmino da Hora) and best friend Bene
(Phelipe Haagensen) are the film's main focus; two scheming youngsters who
grow up to become drug overlords within the City of God, eventually forced
to contend with the problems that come with being at the top of the bottom
feeder's food chain. That life for the two will end violently is beyond
doubt, and it's fascinating to watch the almost fatalistic manner in which
the pair goes about their daily routine: paying off the police, moving
young kids through the ranks, forming uneasy alliances and breaking truces
with rival dealers.
Meirelles and co-director Katia Lund do an excellent job of moving back
and forth through time, effortlessly showing us how the actions of one
person inalterably change the life of another, and this cause-and-effect
style adds layers of depth to the otherwise nihilistically shallow
characters. Indeed, City of God shows by example that those drawn
to a life of crime do so more from a lack of formal education than any
deep-seated anti-authoritarian bent. Sheer ignorance, coupled with
crushing poverty and a government's indifference to the people placed in
housing facilities like the City of God (hidden away from the tourists
flocking to postcard-beautiful beaches a few miles away), drives the
vicious cycle of violence and hopelessness in which people such as Little
Ze and Bene become inextricably caught.
The only real misstep City of God makes is a lack of faith in
its non-narrative approach, introducing unnecessary plot threads that seem
forced and artificial in so immediate and impulsively filmed a setting.
From a young boy who, bent on revenge, joins the gang that was responsible
for his father's murder to the telegraphed fate of the gangster who just
wants to get out of the life, Meirelles exerts unnecessary control over a
place where chaos is the order of the day and the random uncertainty from
moment to moment proves its most compelling aspect.
By the end of the film, the cycle continues anew, the thugs who ran the
show have been displaced by an even younger group of hoodlums, with young
Rocket dutifully capturing the images for a local newspaper. Meirelles
offers no answers or solutions for his subjects' plight: He merely
documents what is there and, if nothing else, shows even the most jaded
viewer that no matter how bad one thinks things are in his part of the
world, there's almost certainly a far worse situation elsewhere.
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