Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Important Movies: City of God

To preface, I should probably say something about how declaring something to be the "best ever" comes with certain risks. When you deal with art especially, there are a lot of subjectivity to mess around with, so everyone's going to disagree. Citizen Kane is a popular contender, given its innovative visual style and playful use of the medium, along with everyone's favorite under-appreciated artist Orson Welles behind the helm. The people's champion, so far as the IMDB is concerned, seems to be Shawshank Redemption. I like Shawshank, I even own it, so I can see the appeal. It's clever, and it's designed to be as audience pleasing as possible. But I like it, sometimes audiences need to be pleased. Some screenwriter claimed Casablanca had the best script ever, and the script is good, aided by the excellent performances. I can see the point of all of these movies being highly regarded, along with at least several others that I didn't mention.

But they're all wrong, the best movie ever made is City of God.

I have a funny feeling it'll never be recognized as such, being a bit too foreign and much too bloody. The top spot will always be reserved for something without subtitles and too much violence, in order to have the list have some mass appeal, given the people who are suspicious of both. It's also not particularly crowd pleasing, though I'll get to that in a minute.

This movie is about the Brazilian slum City of God, and the people who live there. City of God is not a particularly nice place to live, being filled with drug dealers and all. This world is where our hero Buscape is born into, and it is also what Little Ze is born into. The difference is, Buscape wants to get out, while Little Ze loves the world of violence and drug dealing. The story follows their respective rises to prominence, and how their fates are unexpectedly intertwined.

This is pretty much the reason I distrust gimmickry so much, because this movie does it well. This movie makes heavy use of a shaky camera, non-linear storytelling, and voice over. If a movie gets any one of those things wrong, it can be difficult to watch. This gets all of those elements right. First off, the cinematography. The camerawork is relentlessly stylish. The camera, mostly handheld, moves fluidly around, acting like another character simply observing. Also, the cinematographer seems to have gained control of the sun, since the film gets steadily less bright and sunny as the violence escalates. In the early scenes, it is bright, almost relentlessly so. The summer sun is so intense it might even raise the temperature of the room you're sitting in. Near the end, especially during Little Ze's confrontation with police, there is a sense of grayness around.

The story is non-linear, but not aggressively so. Things happen which the viewer is not privy to, and when they are revealed they are initially shocking, but not surprising after further consideration. You, at that point, know the characters, so their actions are, while not justified, explainable. You're also frequently introduced to characters before they are properly included in the story proper. The best example is Knockout Ned, whose introduction as an honest man making an honest living is set up to contrast with his getting sucked into the drug trade and the dishonesty it brings in him.

The characters are where this film really shines though, having clear and obvious psychological profiles without ever taking the time to explain them. Little Ze has clear problems with self esteem, which he thinks he can solve by being a big man. Never stated, but you can see it in scenes where he is visibly uncomfortable with someone else getting attention. His actions are a greater indication of his character than anything any other character might say for him. This is true of all the characters. You can see what they want in life simply by the way they act.

It's designed to be a portrayal of life for the kids who live in these slums, and it doesn't try to be a depressing and gritty movie just to claim realism. It's tragic, sure, but there are many moments of humor and levity, particularly Buscape's desire to get laid. These scenes are there not just to be amusing and distract from the violence, but to paint a complete picture of the kids' life. It's not all drugs and violence, there are good times too, and these are complete and interesting people dealing with the situation life has given them.

This movie is sad and depressing, hopeful and uplifting, and it ends on both a big high and a massive low. It transports you to a place where you don't necessarily want to go, and teaches you how people much less fortunate have to live every day. It is a film which managed to get a government inquiry after revealing the condition of the slums, likely making life better for hundreds of people. It can be funny, clever, violent, depressing, and entertaining. It has a social conscious and a message, relying on the story itself to provide the message rather than having any scene which clubs you with a moralizing stick. It's just simply the best movie ever made.

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