Jarv’s Best Film of 2000-2009: City of God
Well, here it is. I can’t believe that anyone is surprised that I picked the Brazilian monster for my best film of the decade, but I find something new to love about it every time I watch it. In the last decade, which all in all has been quite good (despite what every summer has made me think), I can’t think of another film as good as this one.
City of God is largely based on a true story. I know that is usually enough to get most (including me) reaching for the off switch, but this film transcends that stigma. It charts the gang war that tore Rio’s slums apart in the 70’s/ early 80’s through the eyes of aspiring photographer, Rocket, as he battles to survive the war and maybe (hopefully) lose his virginity. The characters that populate the city are all vivid and believable, and the story is itself is gritty, often funny, occasionally touching, frequently terrifying and so is completely compelling from the opening explosion of kinetic energy to the newsreel footage that the film closes with.
All the acting is magnificent, and even more impressive when you know that the vast majority of the child actors are actual street kids plucked from obscurity and that a lot of their dialogue was improvised. They are without exception superb, whether it’s the look of glee on Little Dice’s face as he guns down people, or the shaking and abject terror when Rocket is confronted by genuine life threatening danger. These are simply superb performances. Daniel Radcliffe eat your heart out.
There’s been a lot written about flashy editing techniques, split narrative and the rest of it, and I’m in no way qualified to talk about these, aside from saying that they don’t intrude- rather they add to the spiraling vortex of samba fueled energy. Instead, I’m going to talk about a handful of scenes in it that I think are peerless in the 21st Century. Firstly, there’s a chapter about 2/3 of the way through City of God entirely devoted to Rocket’s brief and pathetic flirtation with crime. Rocket is simply not cut out for it. He’s useless. This is an important scene, although it doesn’t initially feel like it, as it introduces the General of Carrot’s gang, Knockout Ned. Rocket initially intends to rob the bus back to The City of God (choosing such a terrible target is pretty much indicative of how useless he is at crime), but Ned lets one of them through for free, and talks to them as adults. They, as a result, decide that they can’t rob him because he’s “too cool”. Still, our hapless heroes won’t be deterred so easily, so they settle on holding up the local bakery. However, the girl behind the counter was “too cool” to hold up, especially as she flirts with Rocket and gives him her phone number. However, incompetence aside, they’re not done yet, and decide as a last ditch attempt to car jack a Sao Paolo resident who is deeply lost. Luckily for him though, he gives them some weed, and as Rocket ruefully comments: “Who’d ever have thought a guy from Sao Paolo could be cool?”. The punchline for the scene is when Rocket explains how he’s brilliant at skinning up, but hopeless with women, and wishes it was the other way around. Meirelles focuses the camera closely on the burning joint to reveal that the dozy little bugger has used the girl’s phone number for cigarette paper. Hilarious.
This scene is spikily written stuff. Rocket and his friend clearly do not have it in them to be master criminals- as they’ve found almost any excuse not to go through with the crime. It’s also, in a film that is for the most part violent and serious, very funny. The performances are superb, and the way the story unfolds through short, sharp segments is similar to a master story teller telling a lengthy joke. Each scene builds to the punchline, and when it comes, it’s more than worth the wait.
The second scene is, I think, one of the most harrowing moments of any film. When the deeply unhinged Little Ze discovers that a “gang” (although you can barely call them such) of pre-pubescent kids have been robbing in his slum he, and this is an enormous understatement, takes it badly. Looking to punish the children responsible he grabs lookout (Steak) and chases down The Runts- although he can only catch 2 of them. In a moment of pure psychotic sadism, he forces the two children to chose whether they want shooting in the hand or in the foot, before eventually compelling Steak to kill one of them. This scene is horrendous. It’s gripping, nauseating and harrowing- to put it simply, it’s one of the most graphic and convincing scenes of violence ever filmed. What is really impressive, though, is that these children are not professional actors, and this scene was mostly improvised. The writing, cinematography and acting in this scene is so good, pitch perfect in fact, that the sympathy of the viewer goes to first the children (who are not sympathetic in the slightest), but more importantly to Steak. He’s tormented and tortured by having to execute a child, but this single action condemns him to a life of violence and an early death.
I can continue with picking out individual moments from this film, as the whole film is full of moments of joy and moments of terror. The opening sequence itself, for example, with Rocket caught between Little Ze’s gang and the police is simply thrilling, or the horrendous slaughter in the brothel, or the decline of Ned into being a “hood”, but I think these two scenes brilliantly illustrate the contrast in this film. It is, at the end of the day, about life in the City of God- and life is often joyful, frequently terrifying and full of sadness. I can’t think of another film that manages to weave a tapestry like this one (not even Goodfellas- which lazy critics *cough*Empire*cough* insist on comparing this film to).
Finally, before I sign off from this slightly long winded review, this film remained with me for a while after I first saw it, but I was damned if I could single out individual scenes or performances. What I had most was an impression of boundless energy, and that’s the best way to describe it. It’s a film that moves at speed, jumping from scene to scene without pause while the Latin soundtrack pumps and the camera whirls to capture the story. Nevertheless, as energetic as it is, it’s accessible, entertaining, and never confusing.
City of God- finest film of the 21st Century so far.
7- The Descent
6- Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
5- This is England
4- Requiem for a Dream
3- Battle Royale
2- The Lives of Others
1- City of God
All these, and the regional list that I drew them from can be found here.
It’s been a blast doing these, but I’m now going back to what I do best- reviewing utter nonsense that nobody else is remotely interested in.
See you next time,