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City of God (Fernando Meirelles) 2002


    Fernando Meirelles’ kiddie-gang coming-of-age drama City of God could be described as a foreign film for folks who don’t like foreign films, or perhaps more accurately as one for those who like Goodfellas and Boogie Nights. Cut from the same glossy mold as Alejandro Iñárritu’s Amores Perros and Alfonso Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá También, City of the God, despite its myriad flaws, gives the impression that it’s going to be similarly well-received and viewed by many as the arrival of a major international talent. Most people, I guess, won’t question its glossiness, which is present even when showing toddlers getting shot. The color filters that Meirelles uses make everything in the film feel overly nostalgic, especially considering how grim the subject mater is. In Boogie Nights or Goodfellas, the hyperkinetic dive into glamour made sense, since the characters felt their surroundings were glamorous, even if those intuitions were later proven false. City of God instead asks us to accept the modest, poverty-stricken lifestyle that its protagonist attains under the same terms, but the inflated perspective doesn’t work, since Meirelles never is able to dredge up more than a few moments that actually do transport us into a perspective where we really do feel that the receipt of a second-hand pistol is an adequate surrogate for a naked Heather Graham.  As a result, the movie’s technique, which is so dominant that it feels like the raison d’etre, ends up feeling like imitation for the sake of imitating another’s success instead of a choice intrinsic to the film. Even though the protagonist is a photographer, and one could argue that the entire film is seen through his worldview, it isn’t until the last act that his talent becomes a major plot point, so that justification seems to hold little water. When it comes to the successful deployment of its stylistic flourishes, City of God recalls overambitious efforts like Blow or Requiem for a Dream instead of Anderson’s or Scorcece’s masterpieces.


    Every act of violence in City of God is presented differently, as if the director saw each atrocity as another chance to wow us, and the effect is that their impact is diminished, almost to the point of nothingness. Instead of the rawness that seems to thrive in this environment, we’re shown several killings that are almost completely sanitized. Even if some red stuff flashes up on the screen now and again, for the most part the deaths feel arbitrary and bloodless. This seems completely counter to the point of view of the protagonist. The abundant gallows humor, which the lead character would probably be much more comfortable with, made me squirm at times. The audience that I saw the film with seemed to enjoy the film well enough, but since Meirelles had them laugh at a few killings early on, they seemed to find it okay to laugh at every killing, which isn’t exactly the effect that the director seems to be going for here. All in all though, City of God does deserve much of the praise that it will inevitably get. The performances are all solid, the movie has a snappy editorial rhythm, and the direction is often inspired and sure-handed, even if it’s sometimes unfocused or overambitious. When compared to an absolutely heart-wrenching work like Hector Babenco’s similar Pixote, City of God is quite obviously a minor work of a director that could possibly make major ones one day.


* * 1/2 


Jeremy Heilman