I had avoided seeing City of God when it was in theaters a couple years back for fear it would be too depressing. What a lame fuckin' excuse. I continue to hang my head in shame. Thankfully, I've grown up a bit since then, having gone to see Dirty Pretty Things in the theater (and a few times since on DVD) and plan to see Hotel Rwanda as soon as it's released. My roommate's Netflix queue has now allowed me redemption, as the City of God DVD arrived several days ago and I finally summoned the courage to watch. In doing so, I was richly rewarded.
City of God (Cidade de Deus) is the story of a ghetto (favelas) of the same name on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, Brasil. The tale of the Cidade is told over three decades through the lens of favela resident Rocket (played incredibly by Alexandre Rodrigues), the narrator/protagonist/guide. Himself Afro-Brazillian, he eventually comes to tell the tale of his home-favela, not only to us but to his countrymen outside the favelas through the lens of his camera. Through the eyes of Rocket, life on the edge of paradise is replete with bitter irony, humor, tragedy, and every now and then, a miracle. The Cidade is a dark and empoverished lining to Rio's rich silvery-white cloud. The Rio of the movies is so often the exotic and picturesque backdrop to romance, mystery and glamour, featuring non-African and usually non-Brazillian characters. It is very refreshing to see the story told on the other side of paradise, in the voices and persons of the favela's neglected and forgotten residents (conspicuously more racially mixed than any American ghetto portrayed on film, television, or in the news).
Rather than moving scenery, the multitude of characters are skillfully crafted of heart, sinew, and spirit. In some cases, a seemingly incidental character resurfaces supplying essential color and direction to the story. At many points when I first viewed the DVD, I wanted to rewind to see exactly when some of these characters first appeared. In this way, the filmmakers achieved a masterpiece both in craft and content.
A number of reviews have criticised the film for its highly stylized imagery juxtaposed to brutal violence. I think what reviewers found most discomforting was not the presence of violence so much as the violence being executed largely by adolescents, some characters even as young as 9 or 10. The clever camera work and violent gunplay have been familiar friends to gangster tales since The Godfather. I think the fact that the film shows the horrifying reality of the young and impoverished as the footsoldiers and in some cases capos of the horrible enterprise gangster films depict. The tragedy and horror as depicted in the Cidade is that much more real, and by turn, the film's commentary about violence, poverty, and their intersection, a much more powerful and responsible one than any other film I've ever seen.
City of God was not the foreign language grief-fest a more cowardly AFroNaut had originally anticipated. It told its story with a deft combination of humor, tragedy, levity, pathos, and sobriety. I remember hearing an Asian film critic saying of Hong Kong films that the target audience in China, paying its hard earned cash, expects to experience the full range of human emotions in the two-and-a-half hours entertainment they've paid for. I and all others whom I've spoken to about City of God felt we'd definitely gotten ourtwo-and-a-half hours worth. I think because of the nature of the tale, the levity became that much more a comic relief, and the tragic, that much more poignant. Don't deny yourself this rich experience. Most importantly, don't deny the children of the City of God (and the many cities like it, at home and abroad) of your witness to their ongoing struggle.
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