City of God

Fernando Meirelles refashions DePalma and Scorsese in the slums of Rio.



City of God begins in a flurry of quick cuts and beating wings, a band of children chasing a chicken through streets that they, like the chicken, can never escape, because despite the city's name these are angels with dirty faces that were never meant to fly.


City of God was the surprising recipient of four Academy Award nominations in 2004: best cinematography, director, editing, and adapted screenplay. And though it didn't win, the film made a name for director Fernando Meirelles, who with one picture has earned comparisons to Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese.


The comparisons are valid, yet too confining. City of God is literally a mini-epic, a tale of child gangsters growing up in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. This is not unfamiliar aesthetic territory. Most recently, Barbet Schroeder's overrated Our Lady of the Assassins did the same for Medellin, Columbia. But Meirelles' kinetic eye roams through City of God with a vibrancy and verisimilitude absent from so many gangster knockoffs.


City of God's opening scene ends in a standoff between the kids and the police, with aspiring photographer Rocket caught in the middle. The film's story—the rise and fall of gangster Li'l Ze—is told through Rocket's eyes, and like the opening camera, the story circles back on itself in loops of time.


That aspect—a film told through the eyes of a photographer—has been absent from its criticism, which has thus omitted mention of director Brian DePalma. Meirelles has adopted not only DePalma's use of the split screen, but his self-reflexive quality, his interest in the camera as an eye that sees everything, including itself.


Meirelles' chronology, demarcated by such captions as "The Sixties," hails directly from Scorsese's Goodfellas, but City of God is no Blow. It has a fluidity all its own. If City of God has a salient weakness, that's it. Some critics have called it exploitive (amusing, considering its debt to blaxploitation films), but the film suffers for its kinship with Rocket: its point of view belongs solely to the camera.


There are few punctuating moments in City of God precisely because Meirelles foregoes the sadistic violence of Casino or Reservoir Dogs. His touch is too light to shock or condemn.


If City of God has an iconic moment, it's the death of Shaggy. Fleeing the city to live on a farm with his girlfriend, the police gun him down as he runs from a stalled car. There's no escape, but through movement, even in death, Meirelles has captured something beautiful.


--Joshua Avram

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