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Children of a Lesser God


City of God

Fernando Meirelles, Brazil, 2002

Rating: 4.2



Posted: March 16, 2003

By Laurence Station

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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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterpiece
 4.0-4.9: Exceptional

 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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