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city of god (spoilers, but c'mon, it's four years old)

A few years ago, a friend recommended the Brazilian film City of God to me, and I dutifully put it on my list of must-sees. It was up for some Oscars, I rented it for an Oscar Run, somehow never got around to watching it. My friend reminds me of this every now and then. So, when it showed up on IFC recently, I recorded it, and today I finally watched it.

I thought it was terrific, although I think I understand some of the complaints people have had about it. It’s relatively non-judgmental … doesn’t go as far as something like Sid and Nancy, always my marker for the judgmental-ness of a movie, but it doesn’t spend much time beating you over the head with a moral, so if you look to pop culture for such things, you’ll probably think of City of God as amoral and too excited by its subject matter (young gangs in the favelas of Rio). It’s not that City of God is a straightforward representation of life in the Brazilian slums, anymore than Mean Streets is a straightforward representation of life in Little Italy. There are too many showy stylistic maneuvers to call it “straightforward.” But it feels honest (not that I have the slightest idea of what life is really like in places like the City of God). I don’t think it glorifies the gangsters … it’s dazzling, but usually in depressing ways, and from my comfortable middle-class American perspective, at least, I can hardly imagine anyone seeing City of God and thinking “cool, I want to be like these kids.”

The film doesn’t offer much in the way of easy explanations or hopefulness, and that’s a problem for some. It is influenced by many earlier films, some of which have been commented on, in particular Goodfellas (this is like a kid’s Brazilian version of that movie). I was reminded of The Harder They Come, perhaps because I watched it again recently. And the most recent season of The Wire, which also deals with slum kids. But the real connection I saw was between this movie and Menace II Society. That film was very disturbing to me when it came out, in particular the character of O-Dog, played by Larenz Tate. I don’t know if I’d ever seen a movie character that so effectively combined amoral psychopathic behavior with charisma … O-Dog was a truly frightening character, a person you would never want to meet on the street, but he was also unforgettable, and (again in my middle-class white guy milieu) he was also terrifying … were there really people like this in the world, and did my kids know them?

Well, the character Li’l Dice (later Li’l Ze) in City of God makes O-Dog look like a pussy. When the 11–year-old Dice commits his first murder (and his second, and third, and on and on as he wipes out most of a sex hotel), the glee in his crazy laughter is scary as shit.

Some have argued that there is no “point” to the film, that it merely turns violence into spectacle. It’s not that I disagree, but that scene (and a few others) say more about the casual worthlessness of life in the favelas than any “point” the film makers could make. My friend was right, this is a fine movie.

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