City of God (2003)

City of God

Why do you make a film? It’s only a relatively new medium, one which has a history now of over 100+ years, but the written word has been around for thousands, same with paintings. And City of God (Dir. Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund) or Cidade de Deus, was originally a recounting by author Paulo Lins first, in book format. But there are millions of books, and millions of stories. So why do you make a film? Why tell a story with images, with sounds and sights and do you best to create and reflect a world to an audience?

If I could answer those questions, I wouldn’t be asking them. But I think City of God has some of those answers. Because one of the things a film does, is communicate. It’s an arrangement, a mosaic of thousands of pieces arranged in order to present a picture, a view. And a mosaic can be described with words sure, but it is at its best when it’s seen. And City of God, needs to be seen. Forever.


It’s a film which if you ever needed to blow away someone’s common understanding of the world, the laws and rules and moralities which seem to govern the world you might live in, this film holds that understanding down and puts a gun into its mouth before pulling the trigger. Everything in the film destroys those boundaries, ripping apart their flesh. There’s no delicate innocence placed in this world, no societal halo’s applied to anyone. Criminals, kids, police, adults, drug runners and drug takers, every citizen in the City of God is a warrior, fighting the inhabitants or even the space itself. Every crime, every act damned by the law and society, takes place here. And not just takes place, but is encouraged, celebrated and becomes the reason for living. If this is God’s city, then God is more akin to the bloodiest Roman emperors than a benevolent caring father.

It’s also a film which gets to some of the darkest understandings of the human condition. That life can be cheap. That violence can be continuous, brutal and explosive, spilling all over the city like oil, coating its inhabitants in its sticky darkness. That your life can be upended by power, by chance, by accident, by anything with enough force to suddenly put a knife in your back when you’re not looking. And how witnesses, become participants, become casualties, and give rise to more witnesses who get caught in the same gravitational pull of time and action. And furthermore the film itself is a witness to it all, because the story it tells is of the city and its inhabitants and they both fed back into each other, a feedback loop splattered and distorted by the violence and struggle of a world turned upside down.

But even the residents of a hellscape live, and City of God is a witness to the life in all its perspectives. Even its most violent residents need to relax from time to time, and to see the favelas here only as places of violence is a mistake that the film refuses to make. The people who live there are just that, people. And they spend their time doing what every one else does. Working, eating, playing. The world is vibrant and sunny, and everything is soaked up, blood of the dead mixed with the blood of life. If life is short and uncertain, then it must be lived while it is still there. And through Buscapé (Alexandre Rodrigues)  primarily, we see how the space of the city works, how its’ heart beats.

But the heart supports the body, and the body of this film is one bursting at its seams. A dizzying, continually multiplying cast of characters spread over the city’s landscape, reminding me that in the real world everyone is their own protagonist, and their aims and ambitions sliding and crashing against each others. And the blood that pumps through the film, the racing, vibrant music is whips you through the landscape itself. And that’s balanced against the film’s cinematography, the films’ eyes, a camera which never dares to look up for fear of getting shot. A camera which keeps close to the ground, caught and trapped inside the winding and looping close quarters of the streets, a camera which is caught in the multiple currents of the film’s river. It strongly evokes war footage, captured first hand on the ground by journalists who put their lives on the line to present the images of what happens in a field where lives are staked.

I could go on about this film forever, it’s one of my favourites. But, if I had to put some kind of resolution down, to answer that question from earlier; why do you make a film? And I think one of the secrets is in the film’s tagline: “one man will do anything to tell the world everything”. One of the most powerful things a film can do, is present a world, real or fictionalised. And to show a world like City of God to the world, a world of spirited and electrifying danger, of adrenaline, of exhilaration moral and amoral, is one of the most incredible things you can do with a film. City of God transports you to the place, the time, the lives. And it does so by all accounts except by actually living there.  And to even catch a glimpse of the things which make us different, and the things that make us the same, in the eyes and hearts and stories of these characters, is a pretty fucking powerful reason to make a film.

-Alex

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City of God (2003)

El Sur (The South) – Subtle, Temporal Dreams

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For posterity’s sake, this was the first film I watched after watching The Holy Mountain (Dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1973), an audiovisual sublime tapestry of cinema, filled with psychedelic visuals and cinema so abstract you could get lost in it. To then watch a film, a film set mostly in a single house in the North of Spain, about a little girl and her relationship with her father, and the world of the adults kept hidden in all of us, with no flashy visuals or bombastic score. It was what I would define as the other end of the spectrum, a work of cinema so simple on first glance that even a child could understand its mechanics. The dense symbolism of The Holy Mountain is lost on many of its viewers, but El Sur (Dir. Victor Erice, 1983) would most likely not suffer the same fate. It is a story of memories, time and the broken, fragmentary nature of human relationships.

It is a testament to cinema, to the artistic merit, and to Victor Erice himself that the hidden depths in El Sur can evoke just as much wonderment as anything found in Jodorowsky’s film. I don’t want to make a habit of using other films as litmus tests, but I felt it particularly apt at this point. Now let’s talk about El Sur.


It is a deceptively simple film  on first glance. As I mentioned above, the usual spectacle of cinema is absent here. The spaces are limited, representative of their locales without being picturesque, only being transformed by one of the most exquisite uses of lighting  I have ever seen in a film. Most of the story is not actually seen, referring to events from the memories of the past unknown to us and the future as yet unseen. I’m reminded of a screenwriting rule I heard once which said something along the lines of “If this is not the most interesting period in the characters life, then its not worth watching”. Watching this, I’m glad to say that rule could and most likely should be broken. It seems to be a story almost composed of the parts other more conventional narrative technicians would skip, the parts which ask us as an audience to maintain an emotional communication and not much more.  The secrets stay hidden, the faces reveal only what’s on the surface and a hint, an imagining at the depths below.

Make no mistake, though the film is delicate and subtle, it is still undeniably moving and evocative. It contains one of the most beautiful edits I have ever seen, one which my words will do little justice to. I will not spoil it here by crudely recreating with words, but rest assured that it left me quietly stunned. So too the lighting and cinematography, evoking the world of painting, of the rich textured chiaroscuro found in the works of Caravaggio and others. It helps to evoke so much, textures of magic and illusion, darkness and other-worldliness, the passage of time and moods. All of this sounds non-specific, but what else can you take from a film sealed in its own timeless realm? It’s about the timeline of Estrella and her father, everything else submitted to this temporal reality. One of the most impressive things about cinema is its way to manipulate time, to not just place us in a recreated period, but to ignore the usual flow of linear time and re-arrange it as one sees fit, so that the only timeline that matters is the one created by the film. Space and what you put in front of the screen is often to do with your budget, but time is democratic in film, anyone can manipulate it.

It’s a film about people, not about plot. The story is primarily in the eyes of the actors, not in the mechanics of its story.I’m not trying to diminish the conventions of narrative cinema, I’m just trying to explain what I like so much about this film which is showing what can’t be seen, not showing what can be seen or telling rather than showing. It’s a film about the inner worlds we carry around inside of us, constantly and weighing heavy on our minds and souls.  About the frail delicate connections we have, and as we grow as people how they fade rather than change.And the actor required for such a role is always carries such an irony, because you have to act as a inward soul would act, not revealing the extent of their emotions or motivations but withholding the very things at their core which we desperately seek to understand.

Everything about this film is beautifully understated, and once again I find myself in the peculiar position of finding my words to be nothing more than a crude accompaniment to the film itself, and yet feeling very happy about this because its true language is that of cinema, communicating in images and sounds and music and the senses, rather than the written word. It’s a film which feels truthful, by straying closer to evoking the real world we live in, where our stories are not always neatly tied up and resolved, where we skip like a stone along the sea beating the other way, pushing as far as we can against a tide of unknown.

On the cover of the DVD, there is a quote from Pedro Almodóvar, which says “One of the best in Spanish Cinema history”. While I haven’t seen enough Spanish cinema to give my judgement, I can safely say this is one of the most poignant and beautifully melancholic films I’ve had the pleasure of watching recently. The art of subtlety is aptly underappreciated, and you could do a lot worse than spend some time in the presence of the dreams of the South, El Sur.

-Alex

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El Sur (The South) – Subtle, Temporal Dreams