Screened as part of NZIFF 2003
We’re still living in a post-Pulp Fiction world and the narrative in Fernando Meirelles’ galvanic City of God is sliced up and delivered in a way that constantly draws attention to narrative panache. We’re told more than once that ‘this is not the time for this character’s story’ and the assumption that there will be a right time and that we’ll be there waiting for it is total. The camera is just as exhilarated by expressive power, racing through the lanes of the favela or, in one of the year’s most amazing shots, hovering above the trees scaled by fugitive boys hiding from their pursuers. The material that Meirelles exalts with such brio is as familiar and as authentically tough as Little Caesar, but now we are in Rio and the gangsters are gangstas, 12-years-old and younger. In a saga that moves from the 60s into the 80s, we watch small-time punks, holding up petrol deliveries and dispensing petrol to the poor, graduate to the big time of the drug trade.
The film’s sociology and its pervasive sense of violence are more persuasive than its psychology. Rather too much of the action can be traced to the psychopathic energies of one character who resorts to wholesale slaughter at an early age when the older boys leave him out of a raid on a brothel. As in the old gangster movie prototypes there is a matching good guy, his childhood buddy, described as the ‘coolest’ gangsta, who wants to quit with his pacifist girlfriend, while he’s at the top. The observer/narrator, who’d rather be worrying about not losing his virginity, is caught in the middle. His dilemma, presented with graphic bravura at the film’s opening is not quite the dramatic spine it is purported to be, but in a film that revels in mayhem, the flimsiness of the skeleton is, at some fundamental level, apt.
The grittiness is as in-your-face as the directorial élan and most of it deserves the attention it demands. Some sequences seem as heedlessly implicated in the adrenalin rush as the childish protagonists, but the sequence where one boy is forced to choose which of his peers to shoot is excruciating to watch. There’s a great, ecstatic dance party when the cool gangsta retires, rendered all the more vivid by our certainty that retirement never figures in the gangsta repertoire. Having hauled us through a radically deranged world where children kill, Meirelles allows us at least this much to be sure about. — BG