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The International Writers Magazine
: Film Review: City of God

City Of God
Dir Fernando Meirelles/Katia Lund
Review by M.C. Wood

Fight and you'll never survive.
Run and you'll never escape...

For every effect there is a cause
God, 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.

The opening shot of Fernando Meirelles’ compelling "Cidade de Deus" ("City of God") reveals a knife moving back and forth on a whetstone. We think, something’s 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. It’s tied to a crate, and we think, it’s doomed. It’s 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 what’s going on. The shot is set up so that it looks like the chicken knows what’s about to happen, and it flutters about nervously. But chickens can’t 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 film’s 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 film’s two central characters, and the inborn violent and essential criminality of Li’l Dice (later L’il 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 camera’s lens, and the matter-of-fact widening of the causal circle with each character’s introduction. The audience is also brought deep into the world of poverty and violence, (the cinematography is almost claustrophobic, we’re 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". Li’l 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 God’s 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 film’s essential theme. It is journalistic, (not in the current standard of today’s 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 film’s camera work is challenging — shaky, with shots framed in unusual ways — but Rocket’s photography freezes cause-and-effect relationships in a way that life’s 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 it’s 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 beginning anew.
© M.C. Wood Feb 2004

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