Monday, January 11, 2010

THE CITY OF GOD AND THE CITIES OF GODS

The three authors of this thing are compiling their "Best of 2009" lists, but I keep wondering how it is that the best movies I find to watch are from some other year. Netflix remains of the best things we've ever invested in, bringing in buckets of films that I would never have thought to watch before. I go back and forth on the cultural capacities of Waco, but with regards to film, there's a lot to be desired. Needless to say, my guest room is the best theatre in town 85% of the time.




CITY OF GOD is a film that will stay with me for months. Saying that this is the story of a Rio De Janerio slum, and the rise of two rival gangs is a really reductionist version of the plot. This is a story less about the leaders of the gangs, Knockout Ned and Little Ze, and more about a slum--the slum itself is the living, breathing, bleeding, heaving main character, vomiting up bodies and breathing out tragedy. Set in the outskirts of Rio, this winner of over 60 awards across the globe documents the ways in which one slum draws together two men by circumstance, and with them, a whole society which must hold sway under their violence. Bands of children roam the street fully armed, letting childhood rules of justice find full expression in guns. Drugs are water; death is bread; blood is religion.


The title of the film calls for me another City of God, the massive work by Augustine. In this work, Augustine beautifully lays out what he takes to be the central problem of human society: misdirected love. What we love, he says, we love imperfectly, so much so that human societies are necessarily made of competition and struggle, of inequity and death. What we love, we love in disproportion, and absolutely--we love the temporal, the sensual, and the gaudy, out of proportion. It's not that food or drink or sex is bad, but when they are loved absolutely, they become self-totalizing idols and impose death upon us, impelling us to sacrifice everything for pleasure or to rot our bones for power.

The tragedy of the slum is that it is of human making, a corral for the homeless to keep them out of the pristine Rio. And as such, for a time, it exists in perfect balance. There is no crime or robbery or rape, but only because behind the peace lurks Little Ze, the overlord who conducts his drug trafficking in absolute power, with petty crime an interference to his trade. When Ze's power trips across the line from the material to the human, from possessing a monopoly on drugs to possessing the power of life and death, a spark is ignited which consumes everything. Augustine watches as the banal ability to do things (power) swells, spilling over as people become things, and things become expendable.

Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund's film narrates this kind of society in heart-wrending detail, such that even those who recognize the temporality of power or the fleeting gravitas of the gun cannot ultimately escape what they have made. The City of God has become an all-consuming deity which opens its mouth and calls back into itself all that which seeks to escape, a god from our own hands and fashioned by our own desires. In the end, what redemption is there is marginal; the hero remains in the City, content to photograph its gasping, teeming, eternal life.

Five child thieves out of five. Kevin, I need to change my links at the side of the page.

10 comments:

Tiffani R said...

I'm nervous about this one, Myles because even though I trust your review I feel like maybe you've smoothed over the violent nature that must exist in this film. Tell me if the wife watched it and liked it and that will help me know if it makes my queue.

More importantly, what are you removing in your top five to the right to make room for City of God?

myleswerntz said...

Tiffani, it's not Quentin Tarrantino violent. It's just tragic violent. People getting killed on the cusp of making it through kind of violent.

John Barber said...

Myles, I've been so lazy lately. I find myself watching cinematic gems like SAW VI instead of real films. Your point is very well taken and I'll shoot this one to the top of the queue.

myleswerntz said...

And, I think I'm going to take off NO COUNTRY and put this in its place.

myleswerntz said...

Barber, there ain't nothing wrong with dumb film. That's why we started this thing, right? To celebrate the watching of bad film? I'm convinced that there's a good and right place for them.

In fact, I think we need to write a book entitled "How to Watch Bad Film".

the hamster said...

i am ridiculously chagrinned to confess that i thought i had seen this. but here's the really embarrassing part: i've confused this film with the orlando bloom film HAVEN. so everytime i've seen this cover in the rental shops, i've always said to myself, "oh right, that's the one where orlando bloom gets his face burned off." wow. i am way chagrinned.

once again, myles, wonderful review. this is at the top of my queue list as well. i'm with john: last night the wife and i watched PELHAM 123. as soon as i can get these current popcorn flicks in the mail, we might get something a wee more solid. you've inspired me.

and i'll switch up your films in the sidebar when i get home tonight.

Brett, Julz, and Emma said...

Myles, et al, I hope you'll let a "stalker" (I saw this on the fb feed) comment; I saw this film several years back and it has been in my top 3 since. I also hope this isn't outside of the purposed discussion for this blog. Forgive me if so! One additional thought I've had more recently related to this film. Just after the 2016 Olympics announcement I visited with a cousin over Thanksgiving who lives in Rio. He was talking about the specific ramifications on the slums and it's people to make room for the Olympic venues. Nothing new, every host city has it's own poverty oppression horrors, however, I think we are going to see something very unique this time around. From watching "City of God" it is easy to see just how deep and controlled these slums are and how difficult it's going to be to "displace" them. I'm certainly not advocating for the displacement that is surely going to come. I am concerned that what we will see in the next few years will be especially ugly. I believe this film finds renewed relevancy for us to discuss and propagate as a means of justice for the people living in the slums around Rio.

myleswerntz said...

Stalker,

Thanks for coming through. We're glad you like this place.

I was shocked when I heard about this as an official government policy around Rio. I shouldn't be, in the wake of the China Olympics, and how it prosecuted similar policies toward the homeless. Thanks for reminding me about the Rio Olympics and its connection to this film.

My gosh, I can't wait to buy this one.

wonderstuff said...

I would read that book...

myleswerntz said...

....and I bought this last night at Best Buy.