"Isn't it amazing how awful things are over there?"
> The fulsome praise that just about every American critic has bestowed for nearly a year on the Brazilian film City of God has been personally torturous to watch, both as a critic and as a Brazilian. Now up for no less than four Academy Awards, it will continue to blow away those who accept it as "powerful," "devastating" and "extraordinarily realistic." So, instead of my annual I-hate-the-Oscars piece, I decided to take a belated swipe at it. This article is probably a year too late to matter one way or another, but it was something I felt I simply had to do.
As it happens, I deplore City of God. The film, directed by Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund (though, with characteristic chauvinism, only Meirelles got nominated for Best Director), takes as its center one of Brazil's most shameful social wounds and yanks it mercilessly for juicy gangsta theatrics and knuckleheaded, inexcusably facile "insight." That this lurid reduction has been hailed as a groundbreaking artistic achievement and, more noxiously, an authentic and fully representative view of a culture, is too depressing for words.
The sprawling plot scrambles to funnel two decades in the history of the titular Rio de Janeiro ghetto, charting its trajetory from 1960s housing project to 1980s drug-'n'-violence slum metropolis. The main story focus (and narrator) is Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), a young aspiring photographer who, in the opening sequence, is caught like a deer in an incoming bulletfest between one of the countless armed-to-the-gills gangs of the City of God and the police. Cue in flashback to the earth-toned '60s, where the seeds of a bloody Gomorrah are already in place, embodied by the sadistic preteen Little Dice. This runty Scarface grows up into L'il Zé (Leandro Firmino), a jheri-curled, snaggle-toothed torpedo who launches the pulverizing gang war.
There are scores of other characters blazing in and out of the story, but Rocket and L'il Zé are meant as the two sides of the City of God experience -- those who fight to get out, and those who dive head-first into it. A valid point in theory, perhaps, but this divvying up is merely the tip of the film's iceberg-sized insensitivity and moral bankruptcy. For Meirelles and Lund, the City of God is less a jumping-off point to look at a nation's tensions (social, economical, racial) than an excuse to lavishly wallow in the spectacle of Brazilians killing Brazilians, shot in the most lip-smacking of styles. The film doesn't explore its subject, it exploits it. Other than a throwaway line near the beginning (about the Brazilian government's creation of the slums to corral the poor masses out of sight), City of God is meretriciously apolitical. Such ignorance of Brazilian history! The film's timespan covers the democratic collapse of the mid-1960s, the military dictatorship of the '70s and the political restart of the early '80s, yet the filmmakers perniciously insist on viewing the City of God as severed from what was going on in the rest of the country, all the better to concentrate on gun-happy cretins and gloating set-pieces.
If Meirelles and Lund were truly honest about shedding light on their subject, then why not do a documentary? The reason, I'm afraid, is that it wouldn't be "cinematic." And by golly, City of God is "cinematic" in ways that have critics panting like Pavlov's dog: rapid cutting, cartwheeling camera movements, pointless freeze-frames, God's eye-view massacres, pulsating close-ups, et al. Essentially, it's a pastiche of Scorsese, Altman, Tarantino, Leone and the Soderbergh of Traffic, among many others -- what every schmuck fresh out of the MTV School of Film comes up with for his thesis. (I happened to see the movie right after the recent reissue of Gillo Pontecorvo's great The Battle of Algiers, and that film made City of God's facile slickness seem even punier.) That so many reviewers drool over all this is further proof that, to paraphrase Robin Wood, most critics don't notice style until they're clobbered over the head with it.
I claim no special insights into these matters simply because I am Brazilian, though that makes me feel somewhat responsible in debunking such a smearing of my culture. The film declares itself as "far from the postcard image of Rio de Janeiro," but the truth is that it indulges in Brazilian stereotypes every bit as fallacious by focusing exclusively on the characters' greed, stupidity and bloodlust. As if there weren't enough cultural misconceptions floating around, now Brazilians also have to be branded as hopped-up barbarians by hipster filmmakers. No wonder American critics eat it up -- it allows them to forget their own country's problems while flattering their own sophistication.
So, between the soulless jazziness of City of God, the pious peon-worship of Walter Salles (Central Station) and the tourist's sellout of Bruno Barreto (Bossa Nova), where is Brazil's cinema? (Who today still remembers the radicalism of Glauber Rocha or the humanism of Nelson Pereira dos Santos?) I've talked to people who see the picture's box-office and Oscar-nominated success as a great advance for the Brazilian film industry. Not if means dragging an entire culture through the mud for such international acclaim. I know of tons of far more interesting and humane Brazilian films that could have used a bit of Miramax's bulldozing marketing tactics, but then again, they didn't boast trigger-happy morons gutting each other for the benefit of cozy American reviewers.
Originally published in The Spartan Daily on February 28, 2004.