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Cinematic Blasphemy

Nothing Divine in ‘City of God’

By Julie H. Hong

Cidade de Deus (City of God)

Portuguese with English subtitles

Written by BrÁulio Mantovani

Directed by KÁtia Lund and Fernando Meirelles

Starring Alexandre Rodrigues, Leandro Firmino da Hora, Phelipe Haagensen

Rated R

For a while, people were enthusiastically putting City of God (Cidade de Deus in Portugese) and “Best Foreign Language Film” in the same sentence. Their reasons, I suppose, will remain one of life’s mysteries. Thank goodness at least the Academy has some taste.

City of God the film is a portrayal of life in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. The City of God, the location, is one of these slums, namely a poor housing project that developed over the course of twenty years into a cesspool of bribery, robbery, drugs, and murder. City of God shows two hours of the atrocities in the City of God. It feels more like two decades.

The film opens in the early 1980’s with a chicken narrowly escaping death. The camera follows the distressed chicken until it reaches a male photographer; and after some Matrix-style camera sequence, we discover he is Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), our narrator. Rocket rewinds life to the 1960’s to tell the story of the “Tender Trio,” three adolescent gangsters. This biography is the first of many, since Rocket has a story for each cast member of the City of God.

Much like Y Tu MamÁ TambiÉn, the film’s strength is its honesty. The cast is made up largely of unknowns, making the film only more convincing. In the City of God, a man is thought to be someone who smokes, snorts, kills, and robs. Cops are bribed. Pre-pubescents aspire to one day become the ruthless hoodlums who run the slum. There is no such thing as buy and sell, only steal and be robbed; and with the number of holdups, it’s amazing that there are businesses there at all. Like a modern Darwinian society, life in the City of God really is survival of the fittest. The film’s body count is evidence enough.

However, honesty is all this film has to offer. City of God overcompensates for its lack of direction with excessive violence. Despite one’s doubts, a plot actually does emerge; it is just heavily buried behind a seemingly endless 90-minute overture. Most movies are over by then.

The film has more than once raised the question “Why do I care?” which is swiftly followed by the realization that I don’t. This is because Rocket, although he is the narrator, is not the protagonist of this film. The true protagonist -- and a poor one, at that -- is the City of God itself. It is difficult to sympathize with a slum, when even those who live there evoke no sympathy. Perhaps this heartlessness stems from the viewer’s desensitization and immunity. The number of people shot cold is so great that the shock and horror of it all wears off, and each new victim becomes just another dead body. This depiction may appeal to those who enjoyed The Godfather and Goodfellas; however, the latter films have captivating storylines, while City of God does not.

What City of God does have is style, though not exactly a good one. Co-director Fernando Meirelles has previously directed commercials -- and you can tell. The film is best described as raw, gritty, and flashy, with shots of adrenaline. Cinematographer CÉsar Charlone uses every camera trick known to man, and the effect is not without merit. However, the energetic, fast-paced images clash with the dragging story. The discord between the two results in impatience, as the viewer wishes the plot would keep up with the picture.

An interesting idea with which the film dabbles is one of God, fate, and what is meant to be. Clipper, a member of the “Tender Trio,” evades death when he resigns his life as a gangster in favor of one with the church. Rocket attempts to meddle in crime but abandons the idea when he fails, presuming it was some act of God that intervened. He even suggests as the plot develops, “What better place for a miracle than in the City of God?” Unfortunately, this question of who actually controls your life is not sufficiently explored.

In the end, City of God is a tedious two hours and thirteen minutes of trigger-happy fools in a distasteful film that resembles a Pulp Fiction wannabe with a dash of Scarface. Don’t miss the opportunity to pass this one up.