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CITY OF GOD

Gangs of Rio

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There's probably an argument for taking a subject like Brazilian slum life and making a movie about it like City of God -- aside, of course, from earning money. The rationale might be that if you want your movie to reach beyond arthouse cloisters, you need to frame it as populist entertainment. Young Goodfellas Go Rio, perhaps.

The problem is, popularizing such material risks treating it too glibly to really tell us anything about the subject matter. That's what happens in City of God, the story of a very specific real-life criminal underworld that director Fernando Meirelles makes feel very much like most other recent cinematic criminal underworlds.

The City of God is a 1960s housing project, built as a home for the homeless and dispossessed. Over the course of a decade, it becomes a hive of poverty, drugs and violence -- the sort of place where kids carry (and use) automatic weapons. And Meirelles' short-pants subjects mature into the wily and ruthless drug lord Li'l Zé (Leandro Firmino da Hora), his good-natured lieutenant, Benny (Phellippe Haagensen), and Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), a reserved and studious kid who stays just close enough to tell the story of gunplay, revenge and fate.

At times, Meireilles creates a vivid sense of place. Early scenes set in the dirt-road City crackle with a loose, natural feel that at instants recalls another Martin Scorsese film, Mean Streets. Later, there's an agreeably ironic sequence in which Rocket and a pal try to be stick-up artists but fail because they keep getting to know and like their intended victims.

But mostly, City of God plows ahead with more flash than substance. Meireilles likes fast-motion photography and the kind of whooshing camera -- crashing in for a close-up, zooming around a motionless protagonist -- that after a while starts to feel more like a tic than a means of expression. At times the thugs are glibly romanticized, as though this were Snatch and Meireilles were getting off on how hard his characters are (or having a good yuck at one who's summarily shot just because he's annoying). The gritty particulars of Rio's favelas -- filthy flats, emaciated mutts -- are rendered not to tell us about life there, but as aesthetic cover for pimping violence as entertainment. And despite the fractured timelines and camera moves Meireilles seems to have borrowed from Scorsese, his film has little of Goodfellas' incisive dissection of gangster egos and foibles.

And it's too bad, because when Meireilles slows down, he and his cast -- many of them real street kids -- do have something to say. Late in the film, Li'l Zé coldly orders a pre-adolescent thug wannabe to kill an even younger kid to prove he's a man. It's a brief, harrowing scene that tells more than most of the rest of the film put together. In Portuguese, with subtitles. * *

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