Sunday, March 20, 2011

City of God - Land of the lawless

Cidade de Deus (City of God) is that rare vibrant, colorful movie teeming with life which actually talks of doom, death and a vicious cycle of no escape. Directed by Fernando Meirelles, this internationally acclaimed first feature by a successful director of advertisements, is set in the picture postcard city of Rio de Janeiro and shows us a side no travel magazine will. The movie is based in an actual housing project built at the outskirts of the city. Commonly known as favela or a shanty town, these are quite frequent in Rio, populated by the underprivileged.  Based on a novel by Paulo Lins, who himself was a resident of the place and survived to escape it, a world where life holds no value, guns speak louder and more often than words opens up to a shocked audience gripping us from the first frame and never letting go its clutches.

We are hurled into the world of Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), a wannabe photographer and his narration of a childhood where the government in an effort to clean up the city, moves the poor people of the slums into a housing development and then forgets about them. Ironically named 'City of God', the place, owing to a lack of proper social order and poverty, turns to be a breeding ground for thugs, gangs and lawlessness. A mini barbaric region soon springs up where kids talk animatedly of becoming gang members, robbing people and play with guns as casually as they would a toy. We follow first the lives of three famous hoods of the area 'The tender trio', all fresh out of their teenage years. They steal, do hold ups and dream of making it into the big league of gangsters. From there, we see the payments crime extracts. The tender trio falls for the new order to form and we witness a child who revels in crime and approaches killing with maniacal fervor, grow into this monster Li'l Ze, played chillingly by Leandro Fimino da Hora.

Robberies, holdups give way to producing and selling drugs. The streets turn more bloody. Children are inculcated into killing. In an especially horrific scene, we see a group of children holding guns and talking of crime and how to climb its ladder when Li'l Ze and his gang chances on them. The outcome of the scene runs like a horror film yet reminds us that for all their bravado, they are essentially children. They just never had the chance at a normal childhood. Crime is a vicious cycle where everyone  essentially pays. Li'l Ze becomes the undisputed king of his domain till he rubs Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge) the wrong way and hell breaks loose. All this takes places through the eyes of Rocket, while he grows up into a man who wants nothing of this sordid world he inhabits. A chance encounter with a camera captures his imagination and he quickly sees his becoming a photographer, a way out.

Meirelles captures this gritty world of crime and bloodbath with a frenzy. The madness in his technique and characters resemble the Quentin Tarantino school of filmmaking. The editing is crisp, razor sharp. The scenes are mixed, the screenplay tangoes back and forth through decades. The narrative moves at breath-neck speed. Look away and you shall have missed something important. All the characters have their little back stories. The colors are vivid, the music loud, the feeling is of being sucked into a mad world. His background in advertising comes to good use in making a technically vibrant film. And yet according to me, where the movie truly scores is at its core, in the story it has to tell.

Exploring the world of crime and its ultimate payout, it also explores the psychology of crime and criminals. So, we have Rocket, who even on realizing at an early age, of crime never paying, toys with the idea of crime, because its the easiest thing to do with the biggest returns. Li'l Ze's character brings out the cold blooded criminal who enjoys crime. He is completely amoral, power obsessed with scant respect for life. His eyes have the very look I had witnessed a couple of years back in Chigurh's character of an emotionless, twisted killer in 'No country for Old men'. What is it that makes these people slaughter human beings for sheer pleasure. There is a horrific scene where Li'l Ze as a child discovers killing and goes on a rampage laughing his way through it. The concept of a child discovering joy in such a heinous act is bone chilling.

Rio, otherwise famous for its many sun drenched beaches, carnivals, Samba also has a side to it not many of its vast number of visitors are aware of. The favelas which are abundant in the city function in a shell of their own. Drug lords rule the place, children are initiated into the world of crime at an age when education should be their focus. Police are hand in glove with the drug lords, looking the other way at killings which are a common occurrence. Its a jungle here and outsiders stay away. The various reforms that have been planned for these areas show little sign of improving the quality of life. Into this altogether dark world, descends Meirelles's camera and finds the majority of its actors amongst the population residing here, making them go through acting workshops. The result is real performances in an environment they are all too familiar with and a film which bring into focus the gruesome world inhabited by the underprivileged in an otherwise picture perfect city.

'City of God' begins with one of the best opening scenes I have witnessed....knives are being sharpened, loud music is playing, festivities are on, chickens are being shorn of their feathers and killed, a lone hen struggles to free itself from bondage and manages to get away, running for its life. At once guns are drawn, bullets are fired and a gang of men give the hen a chase through the streets, firing away. It sets the tone of a movie which is as thought provoking as it is entertaining. What happens to the moral fabric of the section of society deprived of the basics, when the disparity is so great between the have and have nots and the unfortunate are shoved out of the way, in the face of such abject misery doesn't basic humanity become the first casualty. And once that cycle starts, there is no happy ending.

Available on DVD
In Portuguese with English subtitles
Originally Released in 2002

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