Director – Fernando Mereilles/Katia Lund
Writer – Braulio Montovani
Starring – Alexandre Rodrigues, Leandro Firmino da Hora, Phellipe Haagensen
Throughout the duration of my multiple-year odyssey through the long and illustrious history of cinema, I have been taken to many places I otherwise may never have visited; I’ve been introduced to the beauty of Denmark via Von Trier, Vinterberg and Refn; took many a trip through Seoul, courtesy of Mr.Park Chan-Wook, but, until today, Brazilian cinema was unfamiliar to me; until I took a visceral, emotional and exhilarating journey to the heart of the City of God, via the cinematic talents of co-directors Fernando Mereilles and Katia Lund.
Released in 2002 to much critical acclaim and fanfare, City of God stands in a lofty position, high up many critics list of the greatest ever works of world cinema, in particular the twenty-first century, and was the recipient of many awards and adulation, in particular picking up four Academy Award nominations in 2004, almost two years after the initial release in its native Brazil. It was entered in 2003 as Brazil’s entry in the ‘Best Foreign Language Picture’ category, but, ironically when considers the legend it would eventually leave, was rejected as not being considered worthy even of the top five candidates. Safe to say, as time progressed and it garnered a larger worldwide reputation, the film’s legacy continued to grow, and it is widely considered by many to be the definite work in Brazilian cinema in our lifetime. Lofty praise then, but does it stand up to the hype that surrounds it? In short, yes it does.
What is quickly apparent throughout City of God is that the co-directorial credits attached to the picture are hugely significant. The film never settles for any sustained period of time on one particular style of aesthetic, editing or cinematography; rather it continuously evolves and changes in order to match its continuously weaving twisting multiple narrative strands. At times the film is very reminiscent of Aranofsky’s Requiem for A Dream; featuring rapid-cuts, quick montages and, at one point, a very memorable use of split-screen, as two characters stories are told simultaneously in one location. Then, at other times, it becomes almost representative of a David Lynch piece; using ambient mood, slow lingering shots of dark and almost surreal imagery. The scene in particular after a shoot-out, in which we are shown the bloody and destructive aftermath via slow shots with a dark ambient moody soundtrack was particularly powerful and provocative, and, instantly following the rapidly cut shoot-out that proceed it, is a powerful use of juxtaposition that lingers in the mind long after viewing.
The only issue with this is that we end up in a situation where the film is entirely unique visually, and yet somehow feels like a mix and match of various techniques we’ve seen before. The problem is, traditionally, a film will stick with one of these styles consistently throughout, whereas City of God refuses to ever remain grounded with one visual/editing style. It leaves you with a situation where you feel like you are both watching something entirely unique in cinema, yet somehow you feel like you’ve seen it all before. You probably have, but probably never before in the same film, and never so rapidly changing and evolving like this.
A particularly subtle yet near genius technique is the use of the colour palette. During the beach scenes, the rare moments of happiness and peace for each character, the beach is beautifully saturated with colour. We get our look at the ‘tourist version’ of Rio. The picturesque idealistic scenarios of beaches and carnival antics. When we return to the ghetto, however, the colours are then muted and darkened, creating a perfect idiosyncratic with the film’s narrative. It feels almost as if Mereilles and Lund decided not to merely shoot shot for shot, taking in turns as it were, but to bring their own distinctive style to various segments, meaning the two film-makers perform a visual duet of sorts, and the results are quite spectacular, if potentially jarring and polarising to those more conditioned to traditional cinema.
The screenplay works beautifully, and is a finely woven tapestry of intertwining narratives, as the episodic storytelling is never jarring or confusing to the audience, is easy to follow, and gives us plenty of time to become accustomed to each character and grow authentically fond of them. Whilst we the viewer are told the story through the eyes of Rocket, well portrayed by Alexandre Rodgriques, every character has a part to play and none are weak or left without being fleshed out fully.
In particular, Leandro Da Hora deserves incredible plaudits for his wonderful portrayal of Lil’ Z, the power-crazed aspiring gang leader. One minute Z appears a violent psychopath without remorse, the next he’s a vulnerable and scared man, afraid of being left all alone, the last animal in a jungle from which his friends escaped. It’s a testament to Da Hora’s ability that he pulls of this deep performance with ease and looks entirely natural in the role. In fact, the entire casts deserves plaudits, because there is not a poor performance among them.
City of God is, undoubtedly, a very unique and fascinating film that gives us an intriguing and complex narrative that never feels over-written or as though it overstays its two hour run time. The visual style is such a fine and erratic blend of other works that it manages to stand out as one of those truly unique and viscerally arresting works of cinema. Perhaps that though is the point entirely. Perhaps the juxtaposition of visual styles was designed solely to remind us of the dark dividing line between what we the tourists know of the beautiful Rio, and the dark and seedy underbelly that is its true nature. Like Lynch ruthlessly exposed the true nature of middle America to us, so two has Meirelles and Lund exposed the dark heart of the beautiful City of God, and the result is a film that demands to be seen, and deserves its place of historical significance, if never quite reaching the level of a true work of genius.
Final Rating - 8.8