Tuesday, 5 May 2020

Article: Looking back at City of God

Despite my recent viewing being an umpteenth watch of City of God, my reaction is still the same. From the opening credits to the final moments, I was pulled back to when I used to work at my local cinema and I dragged my friends and co-workers to see a Brazilian Gangster coming of age film that they have never heard of. I saw a five-star review of the film in the now-defunct Hotdog magazine. To this day the best film magazine, I had the pleasure of reading. The magazine hyped the film as a Brazilian Goodfellas (1990), which was enough for me to lure my pals into the feature. As the “film guy” of the group, they never truly trusted my opinion on movies. They still don’t.

The film guy came good in this case. We all left the film rocked by what we just saw. Not just due to being the perfect age (18) to be blown away by a gritty, gun-toting journey into the favelas of Brazil. Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund’s piece is an astonishing piece of filmmaking. The Goodfellas comparisons from critics were clear and understandable, but the film’s signifiers came from a different place. They bought a new and eclectic vibrancy to proceedings. The way the film exploded on to the screen was simply something else. Watching the film now, it still hums with energy. 

A Docufiction adapted from Paulo Lins’ 1997 novel of the same film, the film throws its viewers into an intertangled mesh of organised crime beginning in the late sixties and continuing throughout the seventies. We’re guided through the film’s narrative by Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), as he navigates his way around the drug wars which inhabit the Cidade De Deus suburb where he lives. The film wouldn’t feel too out of place with the criminal coming of age films of Made in Britain (1982), Scum (1979), or Neds (2010). However, while the mentioned films have moments equally as shocking in their way, none have the same vibrancy that takes place here. It’s a film that truly illuminates, not only shedding light on the unlawful activity of Brazil’s notorious favela but doing so with a spark of electricity. High contrast, richly saturated cinematography, quick sharp cross-cut editing, and converging stories. Even now rewatching the film again, I found myself astounded by the breathless way directors Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund inform the story. It’s a shorter film than Goodfellas or The Godfather (1972), but it holds a similar richness. From its expressionistic close-ups to its Funkadelic soundtrack. It is an ugly story beautifully told. 

If there is one thing I forgot about the film, it’s how horny it is. From the first meeting between the young hoodlum Shaggy (Jonathan Haagensen) and Bernice (Bernice) to the death of one character (and the war which comes later from it) hinging partly on the sexual frustration and machismo of a character. Isn’t it funny that a film writer who co-hosts an erotic thriller podcast would note this aspect of the film? That said, this is a film that has no qualms over showing beautifully tanned bodies, often encased in sweat. One reason why this film writer felt so aware of the film’s libido, is because it feels like 18 years on, films have only now seemingly reached a point where they are more undaunted with ebony bodies and sensuality. Yay progression.

Films are no less violent than they were back in 2003 and yet the volatile acts that occur within City of God still feel like a sobering slap to the chops. City of God crafts an environment where poverty and struggle breed corruption. Existence is cheap. The emotional tug which comes from the film’s bleak set pieces often stems from just how young the victims and killers are. The grim fatalism which hangs over the death of groovy playboy Benny. The still horrific hand or foot sequence which befouls some kids who may not have even reached double figures in age. The despair that loiters in the dark alleyways is set against the modest desires of the film’s more amiable characters. To remind us of the previous paragraph, so many of these guys should be out trying to get phone numbers.

The films of Fernando Meirelles often portray an element of innocence lost. Something that the kids in City of God were rapidly losing while teenagers like myself and our first world problems held on to. Granted I am sure many more films have done similar. Let us not be so naïve that I knew nothing about the world at large. But there was something about this film’s urgency despite being a period piece struck me. Something that Meirelles did further on in his career with the likes of The Two Popes (2019), a fictionalised account of a meeting between the incumbent, conservative Pope Benedict XVI, and the liberal future Pope Francis. City of God was a film that blunted the fairy-tale coming of age that I started to notice in American films at the time. Films that were quick to mark growing pains as a passing awkward phase. It expressed a greater world in which young people at my age were inhabited by people who would not be so lucky. 

This is probably why the film is such a formative one for me. That first watch of City of God came at a time when I so close to the age of the characters. With much of my time watching coming of age films and television where the pubescent struggles were somewhat “safer”. It’s understandable to see how the film's violence could provide a stigma to those who live the favelas of Brazil, it’s also films like City of God which broadened the horizons of a viewer like myself. It’s a film that never felt exploitive but impassioned. It tells its story without the kind of romanticism that the likes of Coppola or Scorsese invoke. A period piece with a powerful immediacy.  

City of God wasn’t just a film that became a small bridge to me and my friends in terms of film watching (I also got turned one of my same friends on to Duncan Jones’ brilliant Moon). For me, it’s still a marvel of bold cinematic filmmaking. You don’t need to hold a degree in the socio-politics of Brazil to get what’s at stake, but it does prime a viewer for what is witnessed in films such as Elite Squad (2007). It’s also no surprise there was a boom of production filming shortly around the time the film was released with 45 productions being completed around the same time. People were seeing the potential of creating new challenging works with different areas of the world. The film introduced me to a director whose future work on similar themes of corruption and exploitation have been executed with a comparable amount of skill. 

City of God was one of the films that started the odyssey. The gateway to different and challenging experiences with film. A strange liberation in watching teenagers who we’re trapped in hell. A film that would make how you look at other movies differently. I still marvel at the film's rich use of technique and inventiveness in its intricate storytelling, but as a piece of cinema, I was able to sit with my friends in a dark cinema and hold a shared cinematic experience. It’s also why I find the warm reception at the cinema of the likes of the Oscar-winning Parasite (2019) to also be a large positive. When World Cinema is given the distribution and push, it finds the audience. It makes the connection. Then film guys get to sleep soundly at night.