I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

City of God and News From a Personal War

tn_cityofgodSomehow I made it to the futuristic year of 2010 without ever seeing CITY OF GOD. I don’t know, just one of those things I never got around to, like skydiving or owning a house. But hey, the rest of the world: you were right! This is a good one.

You remember it: Crime in the slums of Rio De Janeiro, etc. The filmatism is frantic: alot of quick edits, handheld cameras, montages with lots of closeups, even some bullet time-esque rotating cameras. Occasionally it’s disorienting (especially since I’m trying to read the subtitles) but I think it’s closer to Scorsese energetic edits than, you know, that slapdash post Michael Bay shit we keep getting. And in contrast with many of that type it’s not slick or digital, it’s grungy and organic. It’s shot on location in the real favelas, with a cast mostly of real slum kids. So it looks like nothing you’ve seen before. (Except CITY OF GOD, since you all saw it a long time ago. Sorry, I’m catching up. Or SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, since they used pretty much the exact same approach, just in a different country.)

mp_cityofgodThe non-linear-first-person-narrator-telling-the-story-of-my-life approach works real well. It paints a good portrait of Lil’ Ze, Benny, Steak ‘n Fries, Knockout Ned, Rocket and others. It’s almost novelistic in the way it lays out all these people and factions. So much to keep track of, but vivid enough that you remember. Lil’ Ze is a great villain because he’s scary and still seems like just some dumbfuck you know. A cross between Nino Brown and a guy from your high school. The scene where he first shows he’s a fuckin psycho is terrifying. He’s still a kid, and he gives the older kids this idea to rob a hotel, but they make him stand lookout. Then when the guys are leaving they find a bunch of dead bodies, and you don’t know why. A little later the story loops back and shows that Lil’ Ze (still called Little Dice at that time) didn’t want to just wait outside so he went in and shot everybody for no reason. He comes out of there laughing, and the look on that kid’s face… holy shit. Keep an eye on whoever that actor is. He might snap.

Then he’s older, and everybody accepts him as the boss, and it seems like he’s the man until Benny gets annoyed by his constant obsession with turf wars and says “You need a girlfriend.” This leads to the long ingenious scene at the dance club, which starts out funny with Lil’ Ze awkwardly trying to get a cute girl to dance with him and slowly builds to horror. I love that Lil’ Ze doesn’t know how to dance. It gives him a vulnerability when he’s asking her to dance. Then when things don’t go his way it becomes a source of dread. Every cut from somebody smiling and dancing to Lil’ Ze standing there frowning pulls the tension tighter. Rarely has social awkwardness created so much terror.

I also like the way it pieces out information, laying the groundwork for later. For example there’s the scene where Rocket and his friend are trying to stage robberies, but every time they’re about to do it they decide the person they’re gonna rob is “cool” and they can’t go through with it. One of these is the guy that takes the fare on the bus, who turns out to be Knockout Ned, a crucial character. This absolutely could be just a bit part, so you don’t realize at first that the conversation is setup – it tells us that he was the best marksman in his army unit. This will come up again. (I gotta say though, it was disappointing that they made a big deal about his karate but then he didn’t ever use it. In an action movie that would be a mortal sin.)

The cast of unknowns is excellent across the board. The guy that plays Benny reminds me of Taye Diggs for some reason. I had no idea that the one major female character was Alice Braga from REDBELT and I AM LEGEND. Maybe this will be like KIDS where all these non-actors that were in it end up having long careers in Hollywood.

The setting of this movie is completely fascinating. I gotta be honest, I didn’t realize this was going on – it’s a much more extreme gap between the rich and the poor than you see here and in many countries. It’s hard to believe the city and the favela are even on the same continent, they’re like entirely different worlds. You know how in THE GODFATHER there are all these people who appreciate Don Corleone because they can come to him with their problems and he’ll use his influence and power to help them? Here you have that in place of local government or services. After the movie I watched a few episodes of the related TV series CITY OF MEN. It’s a little less heavy, dealing with everyday problems like getting the money to go on a field trip. But it’s really eye-opening to see how these kids have to negotiate with gang bosses to get things done. One episode is about the lack of mail delivery, maps or street names in the favela.

I hope I have time to watch more of that show some day. It’s not the same feel as the movie, but it’s really interesting and does a good job of showing things from different perspectives. Sometimes they do a gimmick where it switches to video and you know that means it’s real footage. In one of the early episodes there’s a scene with a bunch of kids playing video games, and it stops for a long interlude of the actors telling stories to each other about all the dead bodies they’ve seen.

By the way, good news: that little maniac who played Lil’ Dice is the main character in CITY OF MEN, and at least in the first season he’s a good kid. So I’m less worried about that actor snapping now.

Anyway, the CITY OF GOD characters and story are as enjoyable as any good crime epic like this, and the unique setting takes it up a notch. But as much as I loved this movie I have to say that an extra on the DVD, NEWS FROM A PERSONAL WAR, was even better.

Fernando Meirelles usually gets the credit as director of CITY OF GOD, but he actually co-directed with a woman named Katia Lund. A couple years earlier, in 1999, Lund (along with Joao Moreira Salles) did this hour long TV documentary about the crime problem in Rio. It tells a history of the gangs through three general perspectives: the gangsters (both young and old, free and imprisoned), the residents, and the police. Young gangsters parade around in front of the cameras with guns and masks, talking about being beat up by police, about being poor, trying to defend their drug dealing as the only way they can get by. Older gangsters reminisce about the days when the gangs were a political movement launched from inside the prisons.

A family who live in the favela talk about how dangerous it is, the type of horrors they see, and how crazy and stupid it is. But then they talk about the good things the gangs do for them, like get them medicine when they’re sick. Frank Lucas in AMERICAN GANGSTER bought turkeys and toys for the community during the holidays, to win people over. It seems like the Brazilian gangs take it a little more seriously. They provide health care too.

Then they talk to some police officers. The way they talk about their job is exactly like a soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan. They go out there and they risk their lives, they chase after some kid and if they kill or imprison that kid, the next day they’ll be chasing after another one. And eventually some kid will probly shoot them from behind or above. They started out wanting to make things better, and now they’re in limbo. They’re running on a hamster wheel. There is no goal, no progress, no exit strategy. Just violence every day, rinse, repeat. They seem to become more disillusioned and hopeless across the period they were being interviewed.

The shocking part is the interview with the chief of police, who lays it all out on the table Jay Bulworth style. (I mean, he doesn’t rap. But he bluntly says everything you would never think a guy in his position would say.) He says that the entire system is corrupt and was intentionally created from the beginning to oppress the poor and protect the rich. He talks about how the U.S. destroys drug plants in Colombia supposedly to protect their country, and says he wishes he could do that to the Colt factory in the U.S., because they’re making guns that aren’t even used for war anymore, that have no purpose except to be illicitly sold to gangs in other countries.

I mean, this is a devastating picture this movie paints. It’s Rio but it’s also Afghanistan, it’s also Palestine, anywhere where a war has been fought for generations with no end in sight. It’s a bunch of people set up against each other, all of them having what seems to them like a legitimate point of view, none of them having a way to stop fighting each other. How the fuck do you solve a problem like that?

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Wednesday, March 24th, 2010 at 12:29 pm and is filed under Crime, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

40 Responses to “City of God and News From a Personal War”

  1. Don’t worry, I haven’t seen City Of God either. I want to, but everytime it runs on TV, I forget to record it and stuff like that. A few years ago a class mate wanted to borrow me his DVD, but then he never returned to school for any reason.

  2. Might want to include a SPOILER alert, Vern, before the Lil Ze carnage reveal. I saw this years ago like a normal person, so it didn’t affect me. Ah, screw ’em–actually it’s their fault for reading this w/o seeing it first.

    Also, the difference between this film’s setting and Afghanistan or Palestine is that the slums of City of God are just blocks from a giant thriving, bustling city with skyscrapers and people in expensive suits.

  3. i caught City of God late too. sometime last year.
    but it was pretty incredible huh? ranks right up there with the best gangster movies.
    so many examples of appalling behaviour and practices, sandwiched right next to genuine humanity and good intentions. it’s a real mindfuck for sure.

  4. Big fan of your reviews. This one being the first one that compelled me to post here. Good review man. City of God was one of those movies, that was so influential/important to me that I honestly didn’t want to leave the theater.. – spidey

  5. “City of God” feels a lot like the fourth season of “The Wire” condensed into a two hour epic, you’ve got mostly bright and carefree (despite their environment) kids who get pulled in by the allure of the streets (before you say spoiler alert, I’ll not say any names).

    Watch that shit immediately Vern.

  6. Scorsese couldn’t make a better Brazilian Scorsese movie than this if he tried. Meirelles needs his co-director back or something because as much as I liked The Constant Gardner and wanted to like Blindness (had any character in the movie made a single decision that made sense at any point) neither were anywhere near City of God. Maybe all the guy brings is the style and needs a strong narrative hand to keep it flowing.
    Or maybe he just needs more Seu Jorge. The Brazilian Tom Waits.

  7. I’ve got kind of mixed feelings about City of God. It’s seems like a Hughes Brothers film to me, in that it purports to be about serious issues but I get the feeling that the filmmakers really only care more about getting cool shots of people blowing each other away in slow-mo. Now, I love cool shots of people blowing each other away in slow-mo; they’re one of the reasons I go on living. But I recognize them as awesome movie bullshit, the kind of thing that says “Don’t worry, bro, this is all in good fun.” When you use them to portray supposedly tragic real-life situations, I feel that your style is working at cross purposes to your substance. I shouldn’t think these senseless killings are awesome, should I? So why go out of your way to stylize them like we’re watching The Matrix? I don’t know, it’s clearly a good movie, but I don’t quite trust it.

  8. You might want to check out ELITE SQUAD, Vern, which is about a group of Rio policemen. Uncomfortable watching, but gripping nonetheless.

  9. i heavily disagree, mr majestyk. i think the difference between city of god and a film like the matrix is that city of god goes out of its way to show the horrific aftermath and makes every single death really count, while there are hundreds of casualties in the matrix and its ilk that dont matter one iota. SPOILER ALERT-a scene like when they shoot the little boy in the foot comes to mind, and there isn’t any flashy camerawork there END SPOILER. i think the stylization is very organic, and feels appropriate for the type of story being told. it makes you really feel the environment the characters come from.

  10. I love love love love love this movie.

  11. This movie is a favorite of mine. Mr. Majestyk, I have to disagree with you. The film is very stylized but I don’t think that it in anyway takes away from it being able to deliver an emotional impact. I would point to the scene that Vern mentioned where a young Lil’ Ze then Little Dice murders the people in the hotel as an example of how terrifying the film can be. (Spoiler) The rape of Knockout Ned’s girl friend is also exceptionally disturbing. If anything part of the reason I think the movie is so good is because of how effective it is at conveying a sense of fun and playfulness when needed, but it also it horrific and tragic at times as well.

    Vern, to your point about the gangs being originally started as a political movement, I remember watching a special about the Crips and the Bloods a long time ago and was surprised to learn that Crip is an acronym for cultural revolution in progress. Much like the gangs from the slums of Brazil the Crips started out with the intentions of helping their community, but ultimately mutated into something corrupt and harmful to the community.

  12. Mr. Majestyk, you might get a lot of flak for today’s post, but I had a similar reaction. It’s been a while, but I remember feeling the movie seemed kind of enthusiastic about high-impact harshness.

  13. it’s been a long time since I’ve seen this movie and I’ve forgotten most of it, I need to see it again

  14. I agree with Mr. Majestyk. It does feel like a Hughes brothers product, which is a good thing, but the extreme accolades for this film are difficult to agree with. For me, it’s a strong 3 star film (out of 4).

  15. this is actually based on a book. in the movie the story takes place in the one kids lifetime, but in the book the same events take place over a much longer period of time. they are both pretty great, but the book is even more graphic.

  16. I hate to be controversial though, but has there ever been a civilization in the history of humanity where the poor HAVEN’T been fucked over?

  17. legalizing drugs would go a long way towards solving a problem like that.

  18. That review (and all the comments) made me think of The Wire (again).

    Sorry Vern, but I’m watching it again, because somebody has to.

  19. Jareth Cutestory

    March 25th, 2010 at 7:19 am

    Mr. Majestyk: I can see where you’re coming from. It’s been a while since I saw it, but I seem to remember CITY OF GOD deploying moments of somewhat seductive violence, only to later show a more horrifying scene of brutality that asked you to question your pleasurable response to the earlier “cool” scene. I don’t know if that was a deliberate strategy on the part of the film-makers, but I experienced a great deal of ambivalence throughout the film, laregly due to these suble shifts in tone and technique.

    On the opposite end of things, you have a film like BORN TO FIGHT, which begins with some pretty brutal violence, then changes tone into outright violence-fantasy, where the previously downtrodden characters engage in all manner of highly improbable cathartic movie bullshit violence. That film is nuts.

    You know which movie really gave me that feeling of chic violence for style’s sake while pretending to have a point to make about violence? IRREVERSIBLE.

  20. Jareth: Yeah, BORN TO FIGHT is amazing, but that’s just the Thai style. They see no reason why a brutal scene of child abuse and heartache shouldn’t go right next to a scene where a dude fights a bunch of ninjas on razor pogo stilts.

    I think IRREVERSIBLE’s style fits its theme. It’s trying to rub our nose in the, well, irreversibility of life with its unbroken takes and backwards structure. On the one hand, these are gimmicks, but they work. It might not have much to say intellectually, but viscerally it gets its simple point across with brutal effectiveness. I find the movie more disturbing and heartbreaking than pretty much any other. It’s I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE without the catharsis.

  21. Ok, so I have a question for those of you that seem to feel that this movie glamorizes violence. What would be an example of a violent movie that you feel does not glamorizes violence?

  22. Jareth Cutestory

    March 25th, 2010 at 9:01 am

    Charles: My pal Lee Marvin Girl has been trying to get me to watch something called SLAUGHTERED VOMIT DOLLS. She says it’s the least sexy bit of violence that she’s ever seen, like SALO made on a camcorder by one of those Columbine kids. I can’t say that her description has won me over.

  23. Mr M – My take on the film is that it is interested in showing the lure of violence, playing on our instinctive thrill and helping to show us how living this kind of violent life can be appealing and seductive. Violence in the favelas is so commonplace that I think it would be more ridiculous to show it as repulsive and shocking. It’s an everyday part of life there, unfortunate but, as PERSONAL WAR demonstrates, generally accepted as inevitable. I think the film is more interested in the horror of being trapped in this microworld. If you’re born into these conditions, you have almost no chance of ever getting out, and all you can do is accept this warped universe and try to survive according to its rules. It’s a cruel kind of prison where you can see and sometimes even travel to the outside world, but never really be a part of it. That’s the level where the filmmakers really find some horror, I think — not the life itself, but the inevitability of it.

  24. Well, I know we just mentioned it, but I would say IRREVERSIBLE makes violence look horrifying and life-destroying, no matter who does it. By leaving you back at the beginning, before any of the violence took place, it makes you realize that revenge is a sham, that no action you take can undo a violent act. You can’t unring a bell.

  25. Mr. S, I can see your point, and I had considered that. Regardless of the filmmakers’ intentions, the style tended to push me out of the movie because it split my perception of it in two. On one side, I was horrified by the living conditions portrayed in the film. On the other side, I was thinking about which shots the director was going to put on his reel so he could get a job in Hollywood. Both sides have admirable qualities to them, but they don’t help the movie as a whole. For me, anyway.

  26. I agree with Mr. Majestyk. The movie is too thrilling an edge-of-your-seat entertainment for its purported seriousness. This becomes especially obvious on a second viewing, once the initial surprise of the various stories is gone. It’s successful pulp, in the same way as Scarface, but a lot more importance is placed on this film, largely coming from the movie itself. Meirelles’ next two movies, The Constant Gardner and Blindness, were both completely patronizing approaches to human suffering. City of God at least has escapism on its side.

  27. Jareth Cutestory

    March 25th, 2010 at 10:24 am

    Manic Cop: None of the reviews I remember reading for CITY OF GOD made much of a point of the social importance of the film. Rather they expressed (patronizing) surprise at the skill with which the film was made. If you recall a particular review that argues for the social significance of the film, I’d be curious to read it.

    Totally agree with you about CONSTANT GARDENER, which is maddening, because in many ways it was a beautifully crafted film.

  28. Part of the reason I missed this movie the first time around is that a buddy of mine who I trust said it was overrated and “just a Brazilian LOCK STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS.” So I think he felt similar to the Majestykian take on CITY OF GOD.

    I don’t know though, I can be sensitive to that kind of thing but I didn’t get that feeling at all when I finally watched it. To me the feverish style doesn’t ask “Isn’t this cool?” it’s more like “Are you gonna get out of this alive?” You know, it starts with that scene of the chicken getting away and the people trying to kill it, and then Rocket runs into Lil’ Ze and is convinced he’s going to kill him. It’s Rocket’s story of how he got out alive, and he’s running through just as desperately as that chicken. At the end I felt like, “Phew. By the skin of his teeth.” As opposed to “That was awesome!!!” That’s because of the frantic style and samba music that it’s able to give you that “my heart’s beating fast” feel. For me, at least on one viewing, it worked perfectly.

  29. Yeah, I don’t know that the violence in CITY is ever exactly “holy shit that was awesome!”

    More like they use style to amp up the suspense. The movie does know how to stoke our bloodlust, but then again I think its also kind of the point to give us the perspective of the guys doing the killing, rather than to judge them. I don’t know if its supposed to be a social statement so much as a gripping story about group of people at a certain specific time and place. If there’s a social statement to be made there, its whatever you take away from the story itself (and what you think about a society that leaves people to this situation), not some kind of sneaky public servic message. Which is why I think the film is so great, actually. GARDENER gets a little more hung up in its message, which weakens it a little (although I still argue its pretty fucking great. The flashback love scene between Fiennes and Weisz in particular is one of the most affecting and real depictions of intimate sex between two long-time partners that I know of).

  30. fuck, exactly what Vern said an hour ago.

  31. I don’t have any reviews in mind which I can point to that say it’s a film of social importance. I suppose I could look for some. That’s more the sense I get from a lot of the people I know who love the movie. It’s a difficult topic: A lot of gangsta rap walks that line of social experience and comic book sensationalism, and I’m more forgiving of it. Maybe the way we process and live with music is different than how we walk around with films in our heads. I just know the second time I watched City of God my feeling was, “This movie shouldn’t be so much fun.”

  32. Maniac Cop – Perfect gangsta rap comparison.

    Charles – Just saw one this week. A Prophet. Some strong stuff in there, but it never felt sensationalistic.

    And I’m cool with sensationalism (if that’s a word), but Majestyk hit the nail on the head when he said “cross purposes.” Maybe it’s because I knew zip about the favelas before City of God, but the movie seemed sincere in presenting an ignored subculture. But then the staging of intense situations felt guided by an excitement about “hardness” rather than how you’d feel if facing the events, either as an involved insider or an objective outsider. “We’re pulling back the curtain on real-world problems … and they are BAD-ASS, brah!”

  33. You know how you have a favorite director and he’s making all sorts of great B movies. And then suddenly he stops making the movies you fell in love with to make serious films. That’s kind of how I feel about Vern when he reviews movies that aren’t B grade action flicks.

    Of coarse Vern could also be compared to the actor that makes the Blockbusters in order to do the small stuff.

    Either way, keep up the fine work.

  34. Thisis where being Portuguese is an asset in regard to CIDADE DE DEUS, aka, CITY OF GOD. In fact, due to the language barrier, you guys in america and elswhere who don’t speak the portuguese language are missing out HALF THE MOVIE. I tell you, half the fun and impact of the movie is not just the images and plot, but the language and dialogue, and the way people talk. What people who don’t don’t speak portuguese realise watching this movie is that some of the dangerous and tense scene involving Lil’ Zé are actually very funny (funny and scary) due to his delivery of dialogue. Also, that typical way that the the people from Rio de Janeiro talk, as if sining, gives thecharacters and situations an extra dimetion and personality. And truly, you guys who know the movie from the dubbing version, you are missing out the humour. It’s a very serious movie, yes, but also an extremely funny one.

  35. Mr. Majestyk, I haven’t seen IRREVERSIBLE but I have friends that share your opinion on the film. I plan on checking it out it just as to be something I am in the mood to sit through.

    Jareth, SLAUGHTERED VOMIT DOLLS sounds like something I will avoid at all costs.

    Inspector Li, I am not familiar with A PROPHET but I looked it up and it looks interesting. I will have to check it out.

    I would say that THE GREAT SILENCE by Sergio Corbucci is a movie that does not glamorize violence. I don’t want to get into too much detail as to what the movie is about and ruin it for anyone how has not seen it, but it is a bleak spaghetti western with a great performance by Klaus Kinski as one of the most unlikeable villains of all time.

  36. Also, speaking of violent films, I just saw Bronson, and thought it was one of the better films I have seen in a while. Tom Hardy’s performance is pretty amazing.

  37. Yeah, what mr. Jam said – Vern, you gotta check out Elite Squad aka Tropa de Elite. Best cop flick ever.

  38. Pixote is another good Brazilian child crime flick, if you haven’t seen it yet. A lot less frenetic than City of God.

  39. I For One Am Really Glad You Enjoyed The Film Vern [I Mean If I was The Kind Of Bloke To Say I Told You Etc Etc] :>.

  40. Vern the co-director thing is not meant to be an equal credit for directing the movie. Katia Lund was in charge of the kids basically and location wrangling. Co-directing is common title down there but it isn’t to imply equal director credit or partnership. For example, she did not have any say in the set-ups, editing, score and all final say on set would be Meirelles’.

    This is similar to Slumdog Millionaire where Loveleen Tandon is credited as a “co-director”. They had important roles in certain instances but were not directors with the ultimate authority.

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