January 16, 2002 [City of God]

City of God made me hunt up Child of the Dark: The Diary of Carolina de Jesus, published in English in 1962.  My paperback copy is brittle and brown at the edges, with mysterious notes I'd made years ago: sentences underlined, with numbers written in the margins--#1, #2, #3, nothing higher. What had I found?  Where was Carolina's diary taking me back then?  She herself was going nowhere: Carolina lived in a favela of Sao Paulo, poor as only former colonists can be: Without looking it up, I can still remember her noting that she could tell whether rice or macaroni was fashionable because when scavenging for food she'd find one or the other in the trash.  She was a mother, and sharp and tough, and she knew how to express herself--but she was as lost as Tom Kromer tramping through the Great Depression in the U.S. in Waiting for Nothing--except she had to stay put and feed her children.  But the two are still neighbors: He ends his book ready to settle for three hots and a flop, day after day, while the last entry in Carolina's diary reads, "I got up at 5 and went to get water."

The wild boys of Rio in City of God are also stuck--although the movie gives them light and jangled energy and endless escape-route alleys and, as the bad guy says in Robocop, "Guns, guns, so many guns."  It's shot--so to speak--with humor and excitement--cocaine-fueled, eventually, with bodies piling up while the kid who just wants to take photographs scrambles over the growing heap like one smart cat, slipping out from under just in time.  Everyone wants to compare this to Goodfellas--me, too.  But the romance of being a gangster in City of God is a kid's hard-on, sudden and unreasonable and too quick on the draw.  The older they get, the more these boys slow down, easy targets for up-and-comers.

I don't see Carolina--she's back at her tin shack, boiling water and scrounging for a little sugar.  The movie, meanwhile, just wants at least one lost boy to grow up and get out--while new kids on the block figure out better ways to cut out the middleman--and their friends and their friends' friends and their families and anyone else--OK, just like Henry Hill's NYC goodfellas, but without the good seats at the Copa.


  1. Well, I'm glad you solved Burun's problem. ;)

    I like this film a lot, and it's fascinating and troubling how it combines the joys of genre with really unsettling moments that belong to a different type of film. Like the one you highlight in your picture above.

    One aspect of the movie I find fascinating is its kind of omniscient view of social transformation (Y Tu Mama Tambien is similar in this regard; both films use narration and visuals, but Y Tu's emphasis is on the former, City of God's on the latter). Like the way we see the city when it's newly built: its parameters clear and stark, a manageable arena; in contrast to the opening where it's a thicket of back alleys and hidden worlds. You can see this in a microcosm in the montage of the house in which different characters live over time, some arrested, some killed, some succeeding in business, etc.

    I love a film that can both keep its eye on the big picture and give us a grounds' eye, in-the-mix view. It strikes me that quite a lot of Latin American films from the last decade are able to do this; probably what makes me favor it (on a per-capita basis), along with Asian cinema, to the cinema of the West, which seemed more narrow and unable to balance micro and macrocosm. Speaking generally of course.

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  3. As always, Joel, I'm gratified that you take the time to leave such thoughtful--and thought-provoking--comments.

    I must admit I did not connect with Y Tu Mama Tambien. It's one of those films I admire but don't "like." But you're right about Latin American cinema's ability to capture the macrocosm in its microcosms. Very Shakespearean. I sometimes think City of God's style seems a bit more exuberant than its subject--the inevitable Goodfellas criticism; still, like Scorsese's film, that energy becomes a kind of critique--the macrocosmic mise-en-scene pressing the narrative microcosm into service? In any case, this is one I was looking forward to get to.

    And if you've noticed I haven't posted much lately, I will point to two things: I'm (a) making my way through The Decalogue while (b) having the busiest term I've had at the college where I work for a long long time. (I'm literally typing this while reaching over a pile of papers to be graded!) But I hope to get rolling again; The Constant Viewer is reaching the present; I think when I get there I might dig into his imaginary archives and start it up all over again. Onward into the past, like a low-rent Great Gatsby.


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