Tuesday, October 1, 2013

RETRO REVIEW: ABANDON ALL HOPE…Despite CITY OF GOD’s Biblically Allegorical Bent, It’s Nothing We Haven’t Seen Before

Despite its crime drama trappings, one must address the irony of the title of director Fernando Meirelles’ 2000 epic, City of God.  After all, upon seeing the film one would have to acknowledge its irony; a not unrealistic expectation given our predominately Judeo-Christian society.  But given the various pantheons of gods that exist in various mythologies, this city could easily be ruled by, say, Hades or Shiva.  Perhaps the film would be best served by if it were titled City of Ozymandias, as what Percy Shelley wrote with tongue firmly in cheek would apply here wholly in fact:  Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair.”  “God” (take your pick) is certainly absent from the proceedings; that is, if He/She/They was/were ever there to begin with.  City of God takes an epic approach to the matter of godless survival and the often futile attempts of hope to germinate in the face of abject hopelessness. 
As with any crime drama, setting is key. Meirelles through use of cinematography goes to great lengths to ensure that the viewer viscerally internalizes the bleak starkness that permeates City of God.  Instead of rain soaked, night blanketed city streets, glamorous gambling parlors and seedy watering holes, the landscape is stiflingly sun scorched. The buildings are weathered and dilapidated, each abutting each other in an oppressively claustrophobic manner. The streets are dirty, sickly, and wholly uninviting. The housing development outside the city is replete with rickety ramshackle homes that look as if they were about to blow over in the stiff, dust saturated winds that seem to incessantly blow with nary a hint of life-affirming vegetation in sight.  Nothing grows here; not life, not hope.  But Meirelles is not content to let the scenery voluminously speak for itself.  With its rapid camera cutting technique, the chicken chase sequence that opens the film foreshadows what is to come:  Unrepentant evil reigns in this fast paced land where lives are trampled and taken at a capricious whim.  The innocent cannot survive here unless they “duck and cover” and stay out of the way.  Even long steady shots are used to convey this mood as the viewer shares a woman’s pain as she watches her lover die in a futile escape attempt from the police, the scene receding in the distance as her hijacked car pulls away.  While escape is possible in this god-forsaken land, it does not come without a price.
Yet camera technique alone does not a movie make, and every Paradise Lost allusion needs its biblical analogues.  For Adam, we have the film’s narrator "Besquat/Rocket" (first played as a child by Buscapé Criança, then played with a disarming insouciance as an adult by Alexandre Rodrigues), a young man with photojournalistic aspirations.  Of course, no garden would be complete without its requisite serpent.  "Li’l Dice" (Douglas Silva) grows from a “nobody” child to "Li’l Zé", the ruler of this drug infested land.  Leandro Firmino plays the adult Zé with a charismatic vileness that rivals the mesmerizing effect of Orson Wells’ “Harry Lime” or Anthony Hopkins’ “Hannibal Lecter”, for how powerful can evil be without its seductive aspect?  Rocket’s and Zé’s stories are told in an epically cyclical fashion. Mierelles heavily borrows flashback techniques from Russell Mulcahy’s Highlander by using key moments or objects in the present to trigger flashbacks to tie-in the past and is used to striking effect: For example, in context to "Knockout Ned’s" (Mané Galihna) death.  When the scene is set in the past, the film’s visual aspects change in order to be evocative of the time period being represented, such as sepia tones for Rocket’s/Li’l Dice’s respective childhoods, a technique currently used in the series Cold Case.  That's not the only stylistic homage that is present.  In Li’l Zé, one can see the similar desire for power and respect and the social ineptitude of a Tony Montana in Scarface, or Bene’s best Mercutio impression from any rendition of Romeo and Juliet. But for all its similarities to other films in the crime drama vein, it bucks other trends in that genre.  In any other standard Hollywood film, Rocket would have sought vengeance for his brother Goose’s death at the hands of Li’l Dice/Zé.  Though he acknowledges the murder in his voice over narration, Rocket does not seek retribution, preferring to get high and stay as clear away from trouble (and filial responsibility) and seek out his escape through his dreams and aspirations.   
In essence, this is a not a story about good versus evil but, rather, its uneasy, compromising co-existence, though the good is certainly muted by comparison.  From Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather to Ridley Scott’s recent Russell Crowe/Denzel Washington vehicle, American Gangster, the current trend in the standard crime/mafia genre is to show how there is good exists in evil and vice versa.  City of God especially follows this trend.  For all his evil, Li’l Zé is the protectorate of his turf while the police kill and frame innocents for crimes uncommitted.  Arguably, for all his “good” qualities, Rocket is evil through inaction if one adheres to author Edmund Burke’s axiom that “for evil to flourish good men must do nothing.”
The cyclical nature of the story also works sub-textually in presenting the self-perpetual nature of this societal anomie.  As Li’l Zé grew from child murder to boss, so is the torch fatally passed when Zé himself is murdered by the pre-adolescent Runts.  Evil feeds on itself and it is the children, not the meek, who will inherit this piece of earth.  Yet that evil is subversively seductive, with power and pleasures to be quickly had while those who stray towards the light and attempt their own brand of legitimate greatness receive a mere pittance for their efforts.  Rocket’s internship at a newspaper for his Pulitzer quality photos attest to that.  But any expectation of fairness would be the understandable in a land of a just and loving god.  There is no justice here.
City of God is a film that works on various different levels but unfortunately, in its attempt to be different from the mold, only shows how closely it is tied to it.  Nevertheless, it is a powerful piece of work that makes its case known.  No sane, god-fearing individual would want to come near this City.  Nietzsche, however, would feel right at home.