I find myself on the streets of Rio de Janeiro in the fifth entry in my List Of Shame!
Screenplay By: Bráulio Mantovani
Directed By: Kátia Lund & Fernando Meirelles
It’s been some time since I’ve watched a film as acclaimed as Cidade De Deus. Very few movies I’ve watched recently pop up on as many best of lists as Cidade De Deus does, but acclaim and best of lists do not a movie make. That’s why despite the enormous acclaim lauded upon Cidade De Deus I had no problem going into the film with a very open mind. At first I was taken by the films grit, acting, and attempts at a softer realism. Slowly those facets were replaced by the film undermining the grit and attempts at softer realism while the actors remained stalwart in their performances. Acclaim or no acclaim there are some things I can’t overlook while watching a movie, Cidade De Deus falls prey to a few of the big ones.
I wouldn’t call Cidade De Deus a message movie, unlike many other reviews I read after the film had finished, as I didn’t find there to be much of a message contained within the film. Instead of sending a message Cidade De Deus focuses on telling a story about the ills of street life. That type of story naturally leads into the clear as crystal image of how bad life on the street is in Rio de Janeiro and how the kids who get caught up in said street life have no choice in the matter. This is perhaps the strongest aspect of Cidade De Deus, it avoids any cheap appeals for sentimental emotion and relies instead on the strength of the natural grit found on the hot streets of Rio de Janeiro.
Another very strong aspect of Cidade De Deus is found in the acting, specifically Phellipe Haagensen as Bené and Leandro Firmino as Li’l Zé. The rest of the actors all range from strong to very good, but these two men were the standouts in my eyes. I could see the despair in their eyes, the resignation to the life they chose to lead. It’s no surprise that the film suffers a fair bit once Bené is no longer around. Bené was the human aspect of the street thugs, in him there was someone the audience could relate to (much more than the passive and far too often absent character of Rocket). Once Bené is gone the film turns far too one dimensional, with bad guys killing bad guys while the audience is left without any character to truly latch on to and follow through these violent times.
I’m not one of the people who complains about violence in film, when it is done well and serves the purpose of the plot, narrative, or story I have no problem with violence in film. Cidade De Deus is a darkly violent film, but all of the actual violence is earned and deserves to be put on display. Where I really struggled with Cidade De Deus was in the decision to film so much of the violence, and the movie as a whole, in a pop like style. There was substance in the violence of Cidade De Deus, a grittiness that was more than enough on its own, but Kátia Lund & Fernando Meirelles undermine the natural grittiness of the film with their insistence on overloading the entire enterprise with stylistic flourishes. The death of the aforementioned Bené is a great example of the shortcomings of the two directors in keeping the violence honest. Instead of showing the death of Bené in an organic way they add a strobe effect that makes the scene hard to follow and takes away from the power of what was happening. This happens a lot during Cidade De Deus, it happens so much that the film never has a chance to be as gritty as it should be or wants to be.
Cidade De Deus could have been a great picture, it could have been worthy of all the acclaim foisted upon it. Instead a pair of directors get in the way of what was happening organically within their picture by inserting unneeded stylistic flourishes at every turn. Cidade De Deus isn’t a bad movie by any measure, but it isn’t a great picture either and that’s sad when the potential for it to be an all time great picture was present. There’s nothing I can say about Cidade De Deus that will change how lauded of a film it has become, but in the hands of directors who were more trusting of the grittiness the story naturally contains I wouldn’t have to worry about changing anything.