No Oscar but Many Nods For Slow-Burner City of God

Fernando Meirelles’ City of God , from a screenplay by Bráulio Mantovani (based on the novel by Paulo Lins), was released by Miramax on Jan. 17, 2003. It received rapturous reviews, but quickly faded from the screen until Harvey Weinstein decided to re-release it for Oscar consideration after his other Oscar contender, Cold Mountain , failed to captivate the critics as much as he had hoped.

I missed City of God the first time around, probably because, consciously or unconsciously, I was so overloaded with compassion fatigue that the prospect of looking at slum kids raising hell in Rio de Janeiro seemed as potentially pleasurable as getting a root canal. I particularly dreaded accumulating any more guilt about conditions I had no way of ameliorating.

But now that I’ve finally caught up with City of God , I can testify that it’s not at all what I expected. The living conditions it projects are as horrendous as I had feared, but the movie is surprisingly easy to take as a rollicking homicidal entertainment. Mr. Meirelles and his screenwriter, Mr. Mantovani, have chosen not to preach the social gospel, nor rub our noses in the squalor. Instead, they jazz up their impoverished environment with the Brazilian equivalent of MTV-style camera pyrotechnics as they follow the destinies of a handful of characters, most of whom choose to shoot their way out of the traps in which they were born.

What is most startling about City of God is the casualness of the gunplay and killing-even among small children. Old Jimmy Cagney movies of the 30’s spring to mind, except that in the old days of Hollywood, the Dead End Kids were delinquent without being mindlessly murderous, while the police generally operated as the upstanding defenders of law and order. By contrast, the drug-trading tots in City of God start carrying guns as soon as they can pull a trigger, while the crooked police fire their weapons without provocation or any fear of intervention.

Still, the gunfire in City of God is more bang-bang than boom-boom. As Mel Gussow points out in an article published in The New York Times (Feb. 19, 2004): “Although the movie is about violence, Mr. Meirelles emphasized that it was not graphic violence, as in a Quentin Tarantino film. ‘You don’t see blood,’ he said. ‘There is rape, but you don’t see it.’ Still, the brutality and the hopelessness are no less clear.”

Aside from Rocket, the young photographer who also serves as the narrator of the film, all the other characters are trapped by circumstance. As Mr. Gussow notes, “as [the kids] grow up (the movie spans three decades) they remain gangsters.”

City of God is, in essence, an ensemble piece with a narrative more perpetually hectic than consistently coherent. There’s nothing as old-fashioned as a “moral” to this tale; guns and violence are never condemned, even hypocritically. Nor are there any Pat O’Brien–like priests or secular do-gooders to speak out against the anarchic aggressions of the lower class or the callous indifference of the upper. Indeed, over three decades, nothing seems to change in this unjust and unequal social contract.

Curiously, there is something exhilarating in watching slum children grow up to become gangsters and drug lords. This is the only avenue of upward social mobility available to them, and they seize the opportunity with fearless gusto. The most spectacular rise in the film is that of a child named Li’l Dice (Douglas Silva). Dice displays a criminal intelligence that’s only taken seriously by the older boys after he goes on a killing spree in a motel-while the other boys make their getaway, Dice stays behind so he can murder a few more folks just for kicks.

From that malignantly ecstatic moment on, he becomes the scourge of the slums, and grows up to be known and feared as Li’l Zé (Leandro Firmino da Hora). He guns his way into the drug business with his childhood chum, Benny (Phellipe Haagensen), the only person he respects and listens to-even when Benny preaches that a less violent course is good for business.

So when Benny falls in love and decides to retire from his life of crime, Li’l Zé loses all control of his sociopathic instincts, with ultimately disastrous consequences for him, Benny and Li’l Zé’s chief antagonist, Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge), the celebrated gangland womanizer. Li’l Zé hates Ned with a passion (tinged with envy) because his own ugly features prevent him from persuading women to even dance with him at nightclubs. Yet Li’l Zé feels no compensating homoerotic attraction either for Benny or for Ned-of the kind that Edward G. Robinson’s Rico, in Little Caesar (1931), or Paul Muni’s Tony Camonte, in Scarface (1932), felt for their better-looking deputies (played by Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and George Raft, respectively).

Li’l Zé just wants Ned dead, and Ned wants the same fate to befall Li’l Zé-but this sector of Rio de Janeiro is so crowded with revenge fantasies that both Li’l Zé and Ned get caught in the nihilistic crossfire. Hence, there’s no climactic meeting at high noon between the two adversaries, only an endless midnight of dark and desperate misadventures.

Ironically, the only survivor among the main characters is Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), who discovers his destiny in a camera that enables him to photograph all the carnage around him, and then to sell the pictures to a metropolitan newspaper for the amusement of the more comfortable citizens of Rio de Janeiro-just as Mr. Meirelles has chosen to entertain the art-house and festival audiences around the world with this uninhibited descent into the lower depths of Rio.

Nonetheless, City of God was obviously too sordid and violent for the Motion Picture Academy’s foreign-film selection committee back in 2002; it wasn’t even nominated after the film was chosen by Mexico to represent it at the Oscars. Now in 2004, after a canny promotion, City of God received four Academy nominations, including one for Best Director, a category with a built-in auteurist controversy over the contribution of City of God “co-director” Kátia Lund not being acknowledged in the Oscar nomination (in any case, the film didn’t take home any Oscars. Curiouser and curiouser, Academy spokeswoman Toni Thompson declared that the Oscars did not recognize co-director credits. So much for recent sibling teams like the Farrelly, Coen, Weitz and Polish brothers, not to mention a duo from the past like Powell-Pressburger. Oh, well-the Meirelles-Lund brouhaha is just more grist for the Miramax publicity mill, with two stories in the Arts section of The New York Times of Feb. 19 by the aforementioned Mr. Gussow and Sharon Waxman, who are still beating the drums for a film released in January 2003 well into 2004.

Kitchen Kulture

Bent Hamer’s Kitchen Stories , from his own screenplay, turns out to be that rarity of rarities; a gently comic, totally asexual, deliciously satiric account of the friendship that arises between a grizzled Norwegian bachelor farmer and a lonely, middle-aged Swedish bachelor researcher who’s been sent as part of a team to study Norwegian bachelor behavior in the kitchen, with a view to finding time-saving efficiencies. The study is sponsored by Sweden’s Home Research Institute, which has conducted studies aimed at standardizing the average household kitchen along the lines of an ultra-efficient assembly-line model. Or, as an old Swedish ad for the ideal kitchen puts it: “Instead of a housewife having to walk what is the equivalent of Sweden to the Congo during a year of cooking, she now only needs to walk to northern Italy in order to get food on the table.”

At least that’s what the production notes for Kitchen Stories tell me, and the apparent authenticity of the newsreels showing Sweden’s Home Research Institute in action convinces me that Mr. Hamer has not invented the satiric conceit, just the wildly absurd Norwegian part. Mr. Hamer’s film imagines that in the early 50’s, the institute sends 18 observers to the rural Norwegian farming district of Landstad-with its surplus of bachelors-to study the kitchen routines of single men. In order to be on 24-hour call, the observers live in egg-shaped, pea-green campers towed from Sweden to Norway by an attached automobile. From custom-made observation chairs high above each kitchen, they study and take notes. The observers must be allowed to come and go as they please, and under no circumstances must they be spoken to or included in kitchen activities.

Joachim Calmeyer plays Isak, initially the most reluctant subject for the study and eventually the most subversive. Tomas Norström plays Folke, initially the most conscientious “observer” and eventually the most vulnerable of them all. That is about all there is to the story, except for some biting comments about Sweden’s neutrality during Norway’s occupation by the Nazis during the Second World War, and a fleeting reference to the wild Finns. Attacking the scientific classification of human behavior is like shooting fish in a barrel for a satirist, but here the delight is in the details as two lonely men slowly reach out to each other for the sheer warmth of sitting at a table drinking coffee together. Mr. Hamer never goes for belly laughs, preferring instead the smiles of quiet recognition from viewers who appreciate a change of pace from all the slobbering in recent movies. It’s also refreshing to find a film that is politically incorrect about neighboring ethnicities.

Promise Huppert’s

Olivier Dahan’s La Vie Promise ( The Promised Life ), from a screenplay by Agnès Fustier-Dahan, is as much a woman’s film as Kitchen Stories is a man’s film. Actually, Mr. Dahan’s film is more a film about a woman and her abandoned children-or, even more precisely, an acting vehicle for the eternally sensual Isabelle Huppert.

Before we first see Ms. Huppert as Sylvia, a hard-boiled prostitute in Nice, we’re immersed in scenes from a flower show narrated by Sylvia to her daughter. When the 14-year-old daughter, Laurence (Maud Forget), comes to her mother after running away from her foster home, Sylvia rebuffs her, but Laurence hides out in her mother’s apartment. When Sylvia comes home, two pimps wanting more money attack her. Seeing this, Laurence stabs one of them to death; the other flees the scene in panic, with Sylvia and her daughter following suit.

Using a highly subjective, impressionistic style, the film shows Sylvia embarking on a journey through her past in search of her lost son. Instead she finds Joshua, a remarkably helpful and solicitous motorist who is also an escaped convict, with whom she begins a new life along with her daughter. La Vie Promise may sound hokey, but I chose to go with the lyricism. You don’t have to.

No Oscar but Many Nods For Slow-Burner City of God