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The Times Literary Supplement

City of God

Hands down, one of the most powerful movies of the last ten years is City of God. I reviewed the film for The Economist along with the Sokhorov meditation, Russian Ark, then got another stab at a review of it in The Times Literary Supplement. (ps. If you dug this film, you should definitely check out Manda Bala, a superbly creative and well-produced documentary about violence and corruption in Brazil).

Here’s an excerpt from the TLS article:

From the US-Mexican border (El Mariachi) and Mexico City (Amores Perros, Y Tu Mama Tambien), to Brazil (Central Station) and Argentina (Nine Queens), Latin American cinema is resurgent. Perhaps we have television to thank for this; during the 1980s, television colonized South America as it had the US in the 1950s and Europe in the 60s. The latest film-maker to graduate from the small screen is Fernando Meirelles, and his film, City of God, is possibly the best Brazilian movie of the past ten years. Walter Salles, director of Central Station (1998), is one of the film’s producers, and his own brand of social realism is everywhere apparent in City of God; but where Salles used his camera as a passive observer, with an almost patrician detachment, Meirelles turns his into a character. The camera and crew, though off-screen, are ever present. Awareness of the camera lends the film a documentary feel and gives it its dynamism and pull.

Based on Paolo Lins’s book of the same name, City of God charts the rise of drug gangs in Rio de Janeiro’s infamous favelas, from the early 1960s to the late 70s. Salles believes that “Brazilian reality has surpassed the majority of attempts to portray it in fiction”, and that “the acceleration of social decomposition has transformed violence into a banality”. But Meirelles, undaunted, has found a way of presenting that reality on film. With co-director, Katia Lund, and Guti Fraga, who founded and runs an acting and theatre school in the hillside favela of Vidigal, he set up a studio at Rio’s Fundicao Progresso to find and train children for the hundred or so roles needed for the film, and named the group, “We From the Movies”, in homage to Fraga’s school, “We From the Hillside”. But, as in Lins’s book, the film’s main character is not a person but a place -one of Rio’s worst favelas, the City of God. The film was shot on location and uses only natural lighting. The actors are mainly non-professional kids from the favelas. The script was used only to guide, not dictate, the dialogue. As a result, the audience is deeply involved in the story: we are participating witnesses to the descent into violence and anarchy.

And you can read the whole article here.

Fear and Goading

I’m not a huge fan of Michael Moore’s documentary style, though his movies are always great yarns, and Bowling for Columbine is not a great film. But it did what many good films don’t – ask tough questions. I reviewed the film and delved a little into those questions in an article for The Times Literary Supplement in December of 2002. Here’s an excerpt from the piece:

Michael Moore’s first film, Roger & Me (1989), was a documentary pursuit of Roger Smith, chief executive of General Motors at a time when GM was North America’s largest car manufacturer. In it, Moore chased Smith across the North-Eastern United States, trying in vain to persuade him to visit Flint, Michigan, Moore’s hometown, to apologize to its citizens for having transferred GM’s factories from Flint to Mexico. The attempt was unsuccessful. But Moore’s style -the baseball cap, stubble and slouch, his ill- fitting jeans and hobbled gait -became something for left-wingers to cheer, right-wingers to bemoan. His new film, Bowling for Columbine, is about guns, and has grossed more than $10 million -a lot for a documentary. Has that success anything to do with the fact that the film was released the day the Washington Beltway sniper claimed his eighth victim? The criticism directed at both the film and the author suggests not. Bowling for Columbine was first shown at Cannes, where it won a prize. In the United States, its reception has been mixed: Moore has been described as “dangerous”, “irresponsible” and a “schlub”. Oprah, on the other hand, called Columbine a “must see”.

And here’s the full article.

Movie Poster for Bowling For Columbine

Myth in the Making

One of my favourite films out of Latin American is Walter Salles’s Motorcycle Diaries. Having travelled much of the same route that Ernesto “Che” Guevara took back in 1952, the film has special meaning for me. The places and people in the film are very real, and Salles didn’t have to do much to recreate the look of half a century ago.

I reviewed the film in September 2004 for the Times Literary Supplement. Here’s an excerpt from the article:

Biopics are often unwieldy films, swinging from hyperbole to mawkishness and back.

The best ones tends to focus on a particular time in their famous subject’s life – a time that encapsulates both the mythology and the humanity of the person. Walter Salles’s new film The Motorcycle Diaries does this for Ernesto “Che” Guevara, taking its title from Guevara’s own travel memoir, and recreating his transformation from restless adventurer with vague notions of social justice to man of revolutionary conviction. In December 1951, two young Argentines, Alberto Granado and Ernesto Guevara Lynch -one a biochemist, the other a twenty-three-year-old medical student -set off on an eight-month journey across Latin America on a rickety 1939 Norton motorbike. The bike made it, just, across the Andes into Chile before quitting on them half way to Santiago. From there, the two men carried on via boat, plane, train, truck, and by foot, across Chile’s Atacama desert, over Peru’s snow-capped mountains to Cuzco and Machu Picchu, through Lima’s sprawl, and down the Amazon to Colombia, then Venezuela.

Salles is aware of the ecology of Guevara’s journey: that the territory through which the young men travel defines their drama as much as Guevara’s testimony.

You can read the full article here.