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From Under A Rock: City of God

September 10, 2016 | Posted by Michael Ornelas
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From Under A Rock: City of God  


Foreign films are often a difficult experience for many. Some are poorly dubbed, others are poorly subbed. And even if the subtitles are done well, many viewers don’t want to read their way through a movie. I (Michael) understand that inclination, as I used to share that sentiment…and then I saw this week’s movie. I first watched it about five years ago and it single-handedly made me realize that by avoiding foreign films, I was shutting myself off to so many unique and compelling stories. Since then, I’ve found myself loving so many foreign films, such as Two Days, One Night, Victoria, and White God, among others, but this week’s pick is still the best of what I’ve seen.

You only get one first time, and for some people, it comes later than it does for others. This particular column is about documenting the first viewing of a “classic” movie or TV show determined at the discretion of Aaron Hubbard and Michael Ornelas in alternation.

Last week Aaron brought Equilibrium to the table. This week Michael takes Aaron out from under the proverbial rock for City of God.

Cidade de Deus/City of God
Released: May 18th, 2002
Directed by: Fernando Meirelles & Kátia Lund
Written by: Bráulio Mantovani
Alexandre Rodrigues as Rocket
Leandro Firmino da Hora as Li’l Zé
Phellipe Haagensen as Benny
Matheus Nachtergaele as Carrot
Seu Jorge as Knockout Ned

Michael Ornelas: I love this movie for a few reasons, but one of the most notable is its cinematography. The story is entrancing as well, because it gives a less glamorous peek into the dark underbelly of crime and drug trade than what we’re used to with movies like Goodfellas.

Aaron Hubbard: I recently rewatched Goodfellas and there are certainly similarities in story structure. But the film’s presentation is totally different, gritty and down to earth. It’s tough to watch but really good, and I can see how it changed your perspective on foreign movies.
The Importance of Photography
Michael: I mean this in two ways: the look of the film, and the impact of photography on Rocket as a character. First, let me just say that the visual realization of the moments in this film are masterful. Few movies have better lighting design (I can really only think of No Country for Old Men as something I’d consider “better” at that), and the use of the camera is brilliant. There was specifically a shot that stuck out to me as being really creative when we see a character’s face on the ground with someone’s foot on his head, and the camera does a three quarters rotation around the foot to show the other characters in the scene looking at him. I’ve seen a lot of cool ideas executed on film and that one still stood out as innovative.

Secondly, let’s talk about Rocket’s photography. Photography in this film represents an escape from reality. Rocket wants nothing to do with the City of God, nor the criminal life that’s an arm’s reach away from him. He hides behind the camera to transform his identity. With a camera in hand, he’s able to be a fly on the wall and subsequently becomes one of the most interesting passive characters I’ve ever seen. He’s understated and sticks in the background of the film for the majority of its runtime despite being our narrator and the main character. I think that provides us with context for the innovative camera work in this film — it points out that despite noticing all these awesome shots, we’re still paying more attention to the subject of the camera lens (Li’l Zé) than we are the man operating it. And that anonymity allows you to craft your own story, as we see Rocket do at the very end, where he has a choice which narrative to tell at the end when he turns in the photo of Li’l Zé’s execution.

Aaron: It certainly feels like the director was trying to insert a meaningful secondary narrative into the film. As I alluded to, the movie feels unique and different from other crime movies, and that isn’t just because of where it was filmed. How the shots are composed make it feel like we are actually there, experiencing it rather than watching it. It changes the meaning.

Michael: Exactly. Immersion is a big factor for me in foreign films; any film I watch in another language that can make me forget about the fact that I’m reading subtitles automatically is held in high esteem for me. It’s a rarity, but it’s so satisfying.
The Corruption of Youth
Aaron: To use an oddly appropriate wrestling term, there are two things I typically consider to be “cheap heat” in movies; putting dogs in danger and putting children in danger. There are obviously movies that are about kids getting into danger, and that’s fine, but when you have a film that deals mostly with adults that suddenly puts a young child in danger, I typically tune out rather than get engaged. Looking at you, The Dark Knight. This film, despite dealing with gritty, adult subjects, is entirely about kids and how the world around them shapes them into hoodlums. Right away, kids are dropping f-bombs and pointing at guns and robbing a brothel. It all feels way over their head; they’ve missed out on a childhood that many American viewers have probably taken for granted. I found the film all the more gripping and tragic because of the youth of the characters.

Michael: I think it’s one of the key components to why this story is so engaging to me. It’s sad. It’s really really sad. Seeing these young kids not only take to this lifestyle, but do it with such ambition and eagerness is so upsetting. And then of course you have the scene where Li’l Zé has a young initiate choose which of two children to execute, and we are finally let in, where we can see how taxing it is on the kid behind the trigger. It’s a tough watch, but it’s never cheap. I never once felt like this movie was trying to manipulate my emotions in a way that betrayed its story and I think that’s important when considering something to be high quality work.

Aaron: That was tough to watch but I also couldn’t pull my eyes away. There are a lot of scenes that grip you by the throat in this one. It’s a very strange mix of a coming of age movie and a Scorsese crime thriller (complete with freeze frames). I can’t think of many films that even attempt to pull that off, which is another mark in this film’s favor.
Based on a True Story
Michael: That combination of words seems to carry a lot of emotional weight when watching a movie. I’ve seen it used as a way to excuse a narrative that doesn’t make much sense, and I’ve seen it used as a ploy to make people suspend their disbelief for a story that actually is fiction (looking at you, Fargo), and this film carries those words. What’s weird about it, though, is that I didn’t invest in it any more or any less because of it. I was drawn into the film because the filmmaker put together a compelling way to present his narrative, not because of the idea that it may or may not have been rooted in truth. Do you find this to be the case whenever you see those words?

Aaron: I think it’s lost some of its meaning for me just because of my movie tastes. I’ve watched a lot of historical biopics or dramas, and very few of them are even 60% historically accurate. Art is an imitation of life, and in books or movies or TV, we create narratives to make sense out of chaos. This is fine, but typically I don’t even think about it since I’m usually interested in “true stories” simply because the real life person or event interests me. Although I’m glad I knew Fargo was fictitious before seeing it, otherwise I may well have become a real life Kumiko the Treasure Hunter.

Michael: You mentioned finding “cheap heat” when a movie puts animals or children in danger, well that’s exactly what “based on a true story” is to me. Sure, there’s a lot of fabrication going on to “Hollywoodize” the movies and make them appeal to broader audiences while still fitting a three act structure, but you almost get tall tale status when your movie is then described by viewers to others who haven’t seen it. It’s an interesting phenomenon. City of God also benefits from the fact that it takes place in a part of the world about which I’m much less educated. My own ignorance allows me to accept this movie more simply because I can’t really relate to much other than Rocket’s passion for the arts.

Aaron: On my first viewing I was struck by the way the film was shot, and was fully engaged in the story. My only real sticking point was that our narrator seemed to be distanced from the plot to the point of irrelevance, but Michael was extremely helpful in explaining why that works. With that in mind, top marks.


Michael: I think that this movie is such a brilliant work of art. It’s depressing, it’s deflating, it’s uncomfortable to watch, at times, but it’s never slow and always a treat to look at. This movie goes above and beyond to make wielding a camera mean something, and as an aspiring filmmaker, I appreciate that immensely.


Aaron: Congratulations, you finally convinced me to change my grade for a film instead of the other way around!

Michael: Heh. It’s about time.

What’s your favorite narrated film?

Next week:

Aaron: Next week is a film that placed #7 on AFI’s Top 100 Films in 1997, and then #17 in 2007. Almost ten years later, what will we think of it?
Michael: This is one of those films that it seems everyone I know has seen and keeps saying “You haven’t seen it?!” So I’m glad I’ll finally end up being viewed as a (somewhat) normal person in their eyes after correcting this grievous error.

Aaron: I don’t think it’s as grievous as many other films we have done, but it’s certainly iconic.

What is your favorite film from the 1960s?

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Check out our past reviews!
Mission: Impossible, They Live, Marvel’s Daredevil, The Silence of the Lambs, 12 Angry Men, The Usual Suspects, The Boondock Saints, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Iron Giant, Fargo, American Psycho, 28 Days Later, Frankenstein, Crank, The Godfather: Part II, American Beauty, Rocky, Alien, Spaceballs, Star Wars: Clone Wars, The Muppets Christmas Carol, Reservoir Dogs, Superman: The Movie, Lethal Weapon, Double Indemnity, Groundhog Day, The Departed, Breaking Bad, Shane, Glengarry Glen Ross, Blue Ruin, Office Space, The Batman Superman Movie: World’s Finest, Drive, Memoirs of a Geisha, Let the Right One In, Apocalypse Now, Aliens, The Incredible Hulk, A Clockwork Orange, Chicago, Seven, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze, The Room, Chinatown, Jaws, Unforgiven, RoboCop, The Legend of Korra – Book One: Air, Ghostbusters, Spider-Man 2, Prometheus, Scarface, Gattaca, Monty Python & The Holy Grail, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, Equilibrium, City of God

This is Michael’s Masterpiece
Michael reviewed a jar of mayonnaise…specifically to see if it has merit as a character in a soap opera.

You have to see it to believe it…

Aaron Has Another Column!
Last week, I dove into the history of Hank Pym, the original Ant-Man. This week, I give Scott Lang his due.

Aaron is now on Letterboxd!
Check me out here to see my star ratings for 500 films. I will steadily be adding reviews for them as well as creating various lists that anonymous internet commenters can vehemently disagree with!

The final score: review Virtually Perfect
The 411
If you've ever wanted to give foreign films a chance but don't have a good place to start, we recommend City of God. This crime drama provides an immersive experience, strong characters, a great narrative, and is brilliantly directed and filmed. It's been awhile since we both gave a film top marks, but this one earned it.