City of God

City of God ★★★★½

March Around the World 2020

25/30: Brazil (2018: 8th out of 27, 2019: N/A)

I have to admire directors Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund for their eccentric style on display here. For every trick they pull that ages the film further and further every moment, there's another that feels of its time in a more tasteful sense, and another still that feels timeless. At its best, City of God resembles the grittier, weirder artists of the past thirty-odd years. At its worst, it looks like a music video that could only get by in the early 2000's. I would say there's no excuse for some of these missteps, but some of those same missteps reverse direction and result in something more effective. City of God stumbles every so often, but it does so in confidence and in style.

In the places where City of God both succeeds and fails in its filmmaking, a distinctive and rebellious personality comes about. An appreciation for film styles of its day is seen, but then acted against in more radical sequences. Meirelles and Lund also know to keep that more cartoonish sequencing quiet during some moments, without dropping it altogether. It makes for a smoother experience overall, ramping up and down its experimental and expressive techniques without being so glaringly obvious.

Escalating violence over the span of decades, moving between dozens of different characters and events, City of God is a lot more epic than its 130 minute runtime suggests. Systems are deeply understood and vibrantly explored with fantastic use of montage and concise usage of time. Reveling in such violence, what with the energetic editing and fantastic color palette, makes one feel like a madman in seeing anything this depressing in a 'cool' light. But the consequences of violent actions get noticeably swept under the rug for others to soon see, and its euphoric sequencing soon feels weighed down in excitement over systemic and personal collapse. "Excited" soon turns to "frantic", and "cool" into "deluded".

Perhaps Scorsese-inspired, but run through some hardened mix of exploitation and more poverty-inspired arthouse. Beneath the two directors are a wide selection of non-actors, all of whom do fantastically in roles big or small. Alexandre Rodrigues as the calmer eye to the storm, Phellipe Haagensen and Seu Jorge a bit further out, and of course, Leandro Firmino as the most frightening and unpredictable of the lot. If City of God is a Scorsese imitation, Firmino would be the Joe Pesci: not invincible, and not without vulnerability or fault, but that makes it all the more freakish in how constant a force he can be. The only actor here with previous experience is Matheus Nachtergaele, who I recognized for his comedic leading role in A Dog's Will two years prior. He's stellar here too, and I'm especially excited to explore his work further. It is a shame more of these actors didn't get much work outside of City of God, but if nothing else they make for a unique and distinct set of faces in this hurricane of culture and tension turned explosive again and again like clockwork.

A glorious and sprawling picture, as much about the visceral act of power as it is the clawing hands of death moving forever inward toward those who seek it.

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