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.