While watching the Brazilian film City of God, I was struck by how much the sheer ferocity of Fernando Meirelles’s direction reminded me of Martin Scorcese’s early work. Like Mean Streets, this movie has been accused of favoring style over substance, but it too is driven by a torrid determination to record a lost history.City of God tells the story of a handful of hoods living in a disastrous slum in Rio de Janeiro in the 1970’s. Its setting and context are completely unknown to most American filmgoers but its tale of abject poverty is vaguely familiar, and most directors would have chosen to present this tale in the comforting, sober language of a PBS documentary.
Instead, Meirelles chooses the combination of fast-cut editing, extreme color palettes and hyper vantage point cinematography colloquially known as the MTV style.’ This approach can be unnerving in that it is also suspiciously familiar; its typical use is to promote consumerism and commerce. Here it is in the service of chronicling child murderers, drug dealers, thieves and hoods, while barely acknowledging virtue and good.
Meirelles is clearly enamored only with telling a history, of relating the excitement, naïveté and fear of adolescence in a very particular time, and doing so without judgements. That translates into an expertly-directed movie, bracing, overflowing with characters (very few of whom are shortchanged), teeming with desperate, electric performances from its nonprofessional actors, and loaded with life. It’s exactly the kind of movie that Gangs of New York should have been.