Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun May 04, 2003 10:17 pm 
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A whirlwind of virtuoso filmmaking

"Cidade de Deus" (City of God) begins with a chase after an escaped chicken and it's a mad rush from then on in this mind-boggling autobiography of a favela dweller who works his way out of the slums into mainstream Rio de Janeiro by becoming a photographer (in the original book he's a writer but this change toward the visual is a smart one). Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund have forged a truly amazing movie: people are absolutely dazzled by the vibrancy of the action and the sheer brilliance of the filmmaking. Indeed, "Cidade de Deus" is a technical wonder, bursting with virtuoso effects that never distract from the action. True, there is a degree of violence that sometimes makes people walk out of the auditorium midway. Some viewers and some critics complain there's so much killing that you're numbed. But whether we like this movie or not, we have to acknowledge its stunning craftsmanship. And observers say that though the slums of Rio have cleaned up and quieted down in the last decade, what the movie shows is true to life.

And here is what's most remarkable: that the movie tells an extraordinarily well-organized and coherent story; that with a large cast and a dizzying onrush of scenes and despite the underlying madness of this Brazilian slum life of poverty, drugs, and violence these scenes show us, everything in "Cidade de Deus" is lucid and logical. The technical flash isn't a matter of confusing us, but of conveying the hopped up, bloody action precisely and succinctly: this is what the dissolves and jump cuts, fast cutting, freeze-frames, and speeded up film are all for: to condense events without loss of vividness; to tell the complex story without losing our sense of its vivid texture.

"City of God" is a masterpiece of editing.

Essentially it's a series of short stories (indicated by small onscreen titles) focused on a group of interrelated favela figures of the narrator's generation. At the end of the chicken sequence, the camera revolves around "Rocket," the narrator ("Busca-pé," Alexandre Rodrigues), and as it revolves the background fades to sandy color and we're taken to his early youth and the "Tender Trio" hijacking a truck and throwing cash to kids, which introduces us to several of the most important characters, "Bennie" (Bené, Phellipe Haagensen as the older boy) and "Little Dice" (later to become "Little Zee," "Zé Pequeno," played by Leandro Firmino da Hora), a team whose last moment together in a strobe-lit Seventies disco teeming with dancers is the emotional climax of the movie. This powerful scene is the triumph of the homicidal, mad drug lord, Zee, over the "hippy" "playboy" Bennie, who is about to take his girlfriend Angélica (Alice Braga) to the country and live in peace, and it's also a moment of extraordinary sexual tension and sadness. Of all the senseless killings, this is the most senseless -- and yet the most meaningful.

But before the disco climax, there's the "Miami Motel Robbery," when a brothel holdup by the fledgling gangsters turns into a grizzly, sensual bloodbath. It's only later that we learn why and how. Characteristically, the movie always goes back to dot its i's and cross its t's, with an assertion of narrative control rather like the style of Tony Richardson's 1963 film version of Fielding's "Tom Jones." The motel robbery fixes the seal of violence on the generation. The next major story is "The Death of Shaggy." Shaggy too tries to escape the favela with a girlfriend to live the hippy country life of "paz y amor" that Bennie later envisions. Shaggy is a handsome, charming, lazy young gangster who's clearly much too young and too pretty to die, but down he goes, and seeing a photographer at the death of Shaggy is what first leads Rocket to get a camera for himself.

The underlying personal thread is the story of how Rocket becomes a news photographer and escapes from the slum; a minor one is how he loses his virginity. He loves Angélica and the first freeze frames we see are his shots of her on the beach, where he cunningly casts her current beau, Thiago (Daniel Zettel), in shadow. Even in this first appearance Thiago characteristically expresses his taste for coke: this will later lead the relatively suburban, well off (and redheaded, Jewish) boy to become a close associate of Lil' Zee in his final days. The constant killings as the favela scene becomes wilder and more violent turn the streets and houses into a grim, dark slaughterhouse, but there's still a stunning sense of the resilience of youth in, for instance, the way Thiago manages to survive both his addiction and his closeness to the most murderous people in the slum. When Thiago leaves the beach in this early scene is when "The Runts" first appear, delaying Rocket's initiation into sex just when it might have begun.

One of the virtuoso devices is to slide visually through time while Rocket narrates and this is notably illustrated by "The Story of the Apartment" sequence where we instantly see the locale become more rundown and empty as it devolves from somebody's home into an increasingly active drug dealing headquarters and ultimately Zee's center of evil power. It's the Story of Lil' Zee that goes back to the Miami Motel Robbery to show the first shocking evidence of his love of killing even as a child. "Cidade de Deus" isn't just full of young men but of children with guns. The final gang that takes over is Las Cocotas, The Runts, a band of lawless sub-teen and early-teen boys. Lil' Zee maintains rigid order, but The Runts mess up security because they rob at will. To discipline The Runts, in one of the most pathetic and gruesome scenes, Zee forces one of them to choose whether he wants to be shot in the hand or foot, and one of Zee's own youngest recruits must kill one of The Runts then and there.

With the increasing focus on Lil' Zee's story the camera movement speeds up and rapid handheld pans become the rule in every scene of violence. The passage of time and the progression toward greater violence is cunningly indicated in the gradual changes in visual style that the movie goes through before our eyes. There are speeded up sequences shot from far overhead to show Zee's evolution from random killer to ruling druglord, as if we are looking at a map, which in fact here we are, a map of the city to show an expanding sphere of control.

And (again the logic is crystal clear, not to say relentless) since Zee's power comes through dealing drugs, the next sub-section is a small treatise on the nature of "Drug Dealing," again illustrated with a rapid succession of narrated scenes and shots.

Rocket's personal story becomes interwoven with Zee's again (as it was when they were young) after a revenge feud involving the handsome "Knockout Ned" becomes such a war that it gets the
favela violence into the papers and Rocket, who works as a delivery boy and befriends a photographer, does portraits of Zee and his gang that wind up on page one. True to the neatness of the whole movie's construction is the finale, which returns to the opening chase of the escaped chicken and spins out from there to a last shootout, bribes, and a takeover of power from Zee by The Runts, all of which Rocket gets on film, securing his hiring by the newspaper as a photographer.

"Cidade de Deus" comes out of a great tradition of Brazilian movies about favelas and street boys whose most notable example is Hector Babenco's 1981 "Pixote," but it is more a virtuoso piece of filmmaking than anything heretofore. It's not only a triumph of editing (and storytelling) but of casting: the youthful actors drawn from the actual milieu of the film are essential to its extraordinary energy and life.

May 4, 2003

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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