There's probably no place on earth that embodies Heaven and Hell the way Rio de Janeiro does. The beaches are world-famous, certain sectors of the population are filthy rich and the city is a cornerstone of the world's ninth largest economy. But in Brazil, the disparity between the rich and the poor is among the world's worst.
The new Fernando Meirelles film City of God, based on the mammoth Paulo Lins novel, turns its attention to Rio's vast underclass of neglected children. Although the setting is the 1960s and '70s, the conditions seen in the film don't seem appreciably different from the scenes of contemporary Brazil in Bus 174, which will be shown at Full Frame next month. By turns appallingly violent, sweetly romantic and slyly funny, City of God is essentially a remake of Scarface in its tale of a young, psychopathic megalomaniac's rise and fall.
"City of God" is the name given to a notorious public housing project, in which the first third of the film is set. Located on the outskirts of Rio, the community consists of row upon row of rudely built bungalows, with only plywood for siding. For some reason, however, no one bothered to provide the community with electricity or other basic services. Perhaps the community's name was an optimistic (or cynical) appeal to the deity for these necessities.
In this environment, where jobs are scarce and guns are apparently plentiful, a life of crime seems to be the only avenue for advancement (unless the youngsters are blessed with a talent for the beautiful game--most of Brazil's celebrated soccer players come from the urban slums). The film, cast mostly with amateur actors, is told through the eyes of Rocket, a young innocent with an interest in photography. As a character, he's little more than a cipher, mostly concerned with staying out of trouble and losing his virginity with Angelica, a butterscotch beauty that hangs with his crew. The movie's real interest comes from the tragically abbreviated lives of his peers, including his dim-witted older brother who has succumbed to the thug life.
The film has a needlessly complicated flashback structure and it takes time for its most interesting relationship to emerge, which turns out to be one between two children, the ambitious and apparently homeless Li'l Dice and the good-natured Benny. The former youngster is played in frightening fashion by a young amateur named Douglas Silva (the press notes take pains to mention that Silva is a good boy, not at all like his character). In a gasp-inducing scene, Li'l Dice reveals himself to be a psychopathic killer.
The movie fast-forwards a few years, with the children all grown up and living closer downtown. Li'l Dice has brought his ambitions along and has even adopted a new name, Li'l Zé (which means something like "little person"). Like Scarface, City of God becomes the tale of a pathologically insecure, violent and jealous druglord, driven further insane by his unresolved sexual issues. For Scarface's Tony, it was his sister, and for Li'l Zé, it is Benny.
Zé and Benny set out to take over the drug trade in their particular 'hood (or favela, a Portuguese term that connotes "turf"). However, Benny is gradually and charmingly revealed to be a sweet hippie, less inclined to gangbanging than to smoking pot and making love. He's so popular, in fact, that Rocket doesn't bear a grudge after Angelica leaves him for Benny.
Zé, for his part, thinks only of conquest, murder and ... Benny. The homoeroticism is obvious, but never acknowledged and the breach between the two young men becomes complete when Benny tells his homicidal pal, "You need a girlfriend."
City of God is a film that lives and dies with its characters and so it kicks the bucket midway through when the friendship of Zé and Benny comes to its premature conclusion. But, the film's not over--there's a long, long way to go as Zé slides further into murderous depravity. The remainder of the film becomes a routine gangbanger exercise with bigger and deadlier guns being hauled out to ever-diminishing effect. In the wake of movies like Trainspotting (which City of God at times resembles), the visual pyrotechnics of this film are wearily generic. Despite all the gunplay, there's not a single gangland killing that rivals the brutal cinematic poetry of Howard Hawks' rendering of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre in the original Scarface.
To their considerable credit, the filmmakers leaven the material with some Tarantino-style comedy. The funniest sequence is when Rocket decides to try out the criminal lifestyle, and the absolute worst "comic" moment is a blatant knock-off of De Niro's offing of Bridget Fonda in Jackie Brown.
But the interest of City of God lies in the idiosyncratic characters that remain comically and tragically human, even when they're brandishing guns. However, there's not much socio-political analysis in City of God. Poverty is simply an endless human condition and this desperate world, like other worlds--even the one as remote as the nearby Copacabana--has characters that can be as funny, vulnerable and silly as they can be dangerous.
Unfortunately, these people also have a bad habit of checking out early from the City of God, and all the blazing guns, busy production design and dizzying jump cuts in the world can't bring them back.
Which, of course, must be the point.
Philip Seymour Hoffman has become everyone's favorite character actor, mostly due to his turns in P.T. Anderson's films going all the way back to Sydney (formerly called Hard Eight), Anderson's 1996 debut. While playing life's dead-last losers on film, however, Hoffman has carved out a separate, successful niche for himself on the New York stage.
His latest film, Love Liza--which opens next week--is Hoffman's first starring vehicle, but this particular ride is a face-puckering lemon. However, this soon-to-be-forgotten misfire, which was scripted by Hoffman's older brother Gordy (thus going a long way toward explaining this movie's existence), isn't merely mediocre. It belongs on a special shelf reserved for films that contain just about every caricatured element of indie film that can be imagined. It's hard to make meaningful comparisons, however, when so few people have seen such similar dreck as last year's World Traveler and (run for cover!) the forthcoming The United States of Leland. All of these movies have one dreadful common denominator: Who on earth, when confronted with a one-sentence summary, would want to see it?
The one-sentence premise of Love Liza is this: A grief-stricken man (Hoffman, of course) takes to huffing gasoline and flying remote-controlled airplanes after his wife blows her brains out.
There's a tiny bit more. At the beginning of the film, the man in question finds a suicide note in a sealed envelope, which he can't bring himself to read. Perhaps there's a story in this sad dilemma, but it won't be found in this film. Instead, the unread note becomes a plot device, a macguffin that exists to keep us watching as Hoffman huffs gas, flies planes, gives away some of his gas to the local teenage huffers, gets fired from his job and huffs some more.
When he finally opens the letter, at the very end, he finds that the envelope also contains a match, with which he is to burn the letter. He ends up setting his whole gas-soaked and memory-filled house on fire. It's a pity that he didn't spill any gas on the film.