Smells Like Tarantino
By Jeffrey M. Anderson
Magic tricks -- conjuring up a dove or making a woman levitate -- only work depending on the presentation. But sometimes even a first-class presentation won't disguise the fact that the tricks are old and have been done before.
Arriving with rave reviews from all corners of the U.S., the new Brazilian film City of God certainly puts on an impressive show. It has the blazing guns, swirling camerawork and suckerpunch editing of GoodFellas, Pulp Fiction and Boogie Nights. But virtually all of its tricks and pyrotechnics feel borrowed from those films and the many films that inspired them.
What City of God does have is a first-hand look into someplace new: the ghettos of Brazil. This is not a bleeding-heart look that a foreigner would have after visiting for a few weeks; this feels like a real insider's movie.
The film's director, Fernando Meirelles, who also made last year's Domesticas (a.k.a. Maids) knows all the crooks and crannies of this world. Our tour guide is Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), a non-tough guy who knows how to passively maneuver through the city of God without getting killed. The worst crime he ever commits is to buy pot, but that's virtually a requirement if you're going to live in this depressing squalor.
Rocket really wants to be a photographer, and dreams of earning enough money to buy a camera. At first he tries straight jobs, but the pennies he earns come too slow. Then he takes a stab at crime, but all of his potential victims turn out to be too "cool."
So Rocket tells us stories: stories of his childhood and the people he knew, and the people they knew and how they all tie together.
As a child, Rocket watched his older brother knock over gasoline trucks. But as a teen, he watches the entire city fall to a drug lord named Li'l Zé (Leandro Firmino da Hora), a grown goon whom he ran with as a child. (Is Li'l Zé named after the Brazilian horror film maven Jose Mojica Marins, a.k.a. Coffin Joe?) Li'l Ze is the first to use force to take over and unify the many different drug businesses in town.
Meirelles and screenwriter Braulio Mantovani drop little story markers here and there so that when we return later to pick up a different fragment, we remember where we left off. A man (Seu Jorge) Rocket meets on the bus later becomes the catalyst for a long and bloody drug war, while an ordinary apartment has its own complicated history (a few people think the place is bad luck).
That's the film's backdrop, but as we get closer to Rocket's personal stories, the film really sings, as when his true love (Alice Braga) eventually falls for the slicker and more exciting Benny (Phellipe Haagensen), Ze's right hand man.
Later, Rocket actually lands a job shooting photos for a local paper. When his photo of Ze and his men holding guns makes the front page, Rocket is sure he's a dead man. Fortunately, Ze (who can't read) loves the photo and invites Rocket to take more.
This only covers about a third of the movie's incredibly dense pastiche, and it's a credit to Meirelles and Mantovani that they're able to pack such an epic tale into such a tight, fast-moving package without ever stumbling or confusing us.
Neither do they shy away from violence. In one scene, Ze and his followers corner two child gang members. Ze grabs one young recruit and forces him to choose one of the tykes and shoot him in the foot. The youngest in the group bursts into terrified tears, and the scene feels real. How else could such a young actor wail so convincingly?
In other words, if you thought Gangs of New York was tough, you haven't seen anything.
But for all its atmosphere and passion, City of God falls just short of a great film because it can't shake that video-store nerd feel. Ideas are lifted from Spaghetti Westerns, American mob movies and low-budget horror flicks and set intact in the new setting. The difference between this and other film-fan masterworks is that directors like Scorsese, De Palma, Tarantino and P.T. Anderson manage to filter their favorites through a unique sensibility; the old images take on new meanings.
Meirelles has succeeded with his colorful backdrop and outstanding use of place and time, but his bag of tricks is old hat. I suspect that if this exact same film were set in America and performed in English, critics would not be falling all over themselves quite as much. (More than anything else, it reminded me of an above-average Pulp Fiction knockoff like Doug Liman's Go.)
Still, even if it's not a great film, it's still a very good film -- a superb, intoxicating, exhausting experience not to be missed.
DVD Details: Even though it was one of their big award movies from 2003, Miramax certainly didn't put much effort into this DVD. Maybe that's because it didn't actually win anything. Even so, they adorned the box with one of Roger Ebert's most overblown quotes, "one of the best films you'll ever see." It comes with a documentary, "News from a Personal War," and optional English, Spanish and French subtitles. And that's it.