One of the most overlooked films of 2003 is City of God, a film that not only made a lot of Top Ten lists but that also surprised many when it received several Academy Award nominations in both "big" categories such as Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay and more technical categories such as Cinematography and Film Editing. Is it worth the buzz?
Director Fernando Meirelles drops us right into the heart of 1970's Rio de Janeiro - the slums, that is. Unlike the beautiful tourist attraction that people see on television and postcards, the slums, dubbed "City of God" by its inhabitants, is ravaged by poverty and crime. The movie examines the rise and fall of two gangs and the few innocent people, if there are such people, stuck in the middle. Like a bad nightmare, the world these people live in spirals out of control with every passing minute as the violence escalates to what can only be considered a war zone.
City of God is one of those movies that takes a deep breath at the beginning, starts running, and doesn't take a break until the ending credits are rolling. The story moves almost as fast as the camera, zigzagging through time and people as it races to cover every aspect of the gang violence that is taking place. As time goes on, hardly a minute goes by when a gun isn't being fired; it gets to a point where the beginning is no longer in sight, where things have become so horrible that it is hard to imagine how things began.
Despite its pace, City of God seems surprisingly long, as if it approaches three hours in length. In reality, the film is only two hours long, and it is hard to figure out how such a story, with its incredible editing and engaging plot, could seem so extended; to this minute, it beyond me. Perhaps the reason is that the movie jumps between so many characters that it seems unfocused; it is hard to figure out who is who. Nevertheless, the film seems much longer than it really is, and that is not a good thing.
Nonetheless, City of God all but makes up for its peculiar extendedness with rich characters and masterful camerawork. How this movie did not garner more awards for its editing and cinematography is beyond me, other than that Miramax did not push this film to its full capability in the marketplace. Technically, City of God is extraordinary - the colors, the angles, and the speed of the camera work seamlessly together.
From a non-technical viewpoint, the movie is pretty good. It really starts to gather steam in the middle, right around the time there is the shooting in the nightclub, and at this point it seemed as though the film was rising to greatness and a conclusion. Then, things go from bad to ugly (violence-wise) as a whole another chapter begins, and the movie stumbles a bit as it goes from a high to a low and then starts to work its way back up. Nonetheless, the story is always intriguing, as it is clear that the cycle of violence has to stop at some point, and that break point will not be pretty.
City of God is effective on many levels, though it definitely works better technically than it does from other points of view. Despite a few shortcomings, the movie is a violent piece of art, enriched with terrific unknown actors and some of the best film editing seen to date.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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