The International Writers Magazine: Film Review: City of God
Dir Fernando Meirelles/Katia Lund
Review by M.C. Wood
and you'll never survive.
Run and you'll never escape...
For every effect there is a cause
if there is such a being, is said to be the First Cause of all things.
The logician asks, "Yes, but what about before God?" The
metaphysician responds, "There was no before. That
is a concept of time." Objects come together and move apart,
bouncing off one another like ping-pong balls. The City of God is
a series of causes and effects, set in motion by the First Cause
of all things. Things are. Asking why makes little sense.
shot of Fernando Meirelles compelling "Cidade de Deus"
("City of God") reveals a knife moving back and forth on a
whetstone. We think, somethings going to get cut. Indeed, things
are cut: the necks of chickens, materials for cooking. All this is shown
in quick cut editing, in rhythm with the chef wielding the knife.
Meirelles camera then moves to a live chicken. Its tied
to a crate, and we think, its doomed. Its next for the knife.
As the action shifts back and forth between chopping and chicken, we
grow uneasy, and begin to wonder if the chicken senses whats going
on. The shot is set up so that it looks like the chicken knows whats
about to happen, and it flutters about nervously. But chickens cant
anticipate their own deaths. They have no intentionality. Just then,
the chicken frees itself (or is freed), steps out of the string noose
around its leg, and takes off, culminating in the inexorable convergence
of the films build-up of causes and effects.
This ambivalent scene sets the tone for the remainder of the film. Human
beings want to think of themselves as free agents, as causes of their
own actions. But "City of God" continually reminds us that,
more than any delusion we have about our own agency, there is the force
of cause and effect all around us, bringing us into and out of situations
that we deem fortuitous or disastrous. How else can we explain the fact
that Knockout Ned becomes a living exception to his own rule? How else
can we explain the native sweetness and inquisitive sensibility of Rocket,
one of the films two central characters, and the inborn violent
and essential criminality of Lil Dice (later Lil Zé)?
Everyone is swept up in the causal chain. No explanation is given why
these two boys, both of whom were born and raised in the 1960s Rio de
Janeiro housing project known as City of God, have their particular
natures. They simply are.
Furthering this morally neutral account of Zé and Rocket (a big
thank you to the director for avoiding the typical Hollywood bludgeoning
of the audience with the ideas it wants us to think) is the narration
by Rocket, the distance provided by his cameras lens, and the
matter-of-fact widening of the causal circle with each characters
introduction. The audience is also brought deep into the world of poverty
and violence, (the cinematography is almost claustrophobic, were
in so tight) but the way the characters bounce off one another as they
fulfill their natures in reaction to various causes continually pushes
the audience out of facile socio-economic-political answers.
The characters, and the actors who play them, go a long way to support
the idea that underlies "City of God". Lil Dice is very
smart, but he also has blood lust instead of conscience. At a very young
age he commits mass murder, laughing all the while. There is no indication
that he feels wronged by society, or hates the life he has. Instead,
he relishes the power and status his role as ruling drug dealer bestows.
He even, along with other dealers, wears a prominently displayed crucifix
around his neck, indicating, perhaps, the blind acceptance of the way
things are as Gods will. Rocket is also smart, but does not have
the temperament for criminal activity. His most egregious offense is
procuring pot to impress the girl he likes. Without resources, he does
not see a way out of the ghetto, but happens upon a window through his
love of photography. Connecting the two is Benny, the "cool hood"
who enjoys the money that dealing drugs brings, but also sees dealing
as a way out of the City of God.
Narration, typically a crutch used by filmmakers to avoid allowing the
story to tell itself, the characters to develop, or dialogue to reveal
important truths, is used here to complement beautifully the films
essential theme. It is journalistic, (not in the current standard of
todays editorial journalism, but in the now-archaic standard of
reportage) and as such defies our seeing inherent meaning in the circumstances
of the characters lives.
The method of story-telling also reinforces the causal interconnectedness
of the characters lives. When a character is introduced, for example,
his or her relation to the events is laid out so that we can see how
that relation came about.
The films camera work is challenging shaky, with shots
framed in unusual ways but Rockets photography freezes
cause-and-effect relationships in a way that lifes continual motion
does not allow us to see. In so doing, he further distances himself
from the causal orbit into which he was thrown.
Leibniz held, as did the Stoics before him, that the universe is providential.
Voltaire satirized Leibniz in Candide as the character Dr. Pangloss,
who claims this is the best of all possible worlds. We may wonder, after
watching "City of God" how its possible to doubt that
the world is a series of causes of effects over which we humans have
little or no control. And yet, there is a peculiar sense of triumph
at the end of the film, even as we see the series of causes and effects
© M.C. Wood Feb 2004
all rights reserved