This week I finally got around to watching City of God. It had been sitting in its Netflix sleeve for weeks. I had trouble finding a free evening, or at least a free evening in which I was in the mood for something serious.
Two thumbs up--it was really excellent. I liked the way the movie was sectioned off by titles. Really, the entire visual effect of the movie was striking, and those beach and discoteque scenes made me want to move to Brazil with a stock of tank tops and a pair of roller skates. Also of note, Alica Braga, who played Angélica, was also in I Am Legend as well as Blindness, I believe, another Fernando Meirelles film.
Of course, this was not necessarily an entirely happy movie. Drug wars are not a pleasant subject matter; neither is poverty. And while Meirelles is generally applauded for dealing with tough material--in this film and others--other people reacted to City of God the way they're decrying Slumdog Millionaire as "poverty porn."
So. Are Slumdog and City guilty of portraying poverty with a sense of voyeuristic pleasure? Do they treat brutality in a way that illuminates the condition of the world, or are they just capitalizing? I guess it comes down to: Are these films helpful?
Truthfully, I'm not so sure these movies make an enormous difference in the lives of the kind of people they portray. I think people walk out of a movie like The Kite Runner feeling a little more aware and maybe more compassionate, but not necessarily inclined to do much about it. So in terms of raw practicality, that's points off right there.
But I still think we need movies that deal with darker subjects. I need not to go through life unaware of other people's experiences. I need a break in the insulation of my existence. And I think a lot of people need that too.
There's something else at play here. I happen to like movies with tough subject matter. But I'm as guilty as anyone about being all awareness, and all talk, without a lot of action. If half the people who saw Slumdog Millionaire went home and donated the same amount they spent on admission to organizations that fight poverty worldwide . . . well, that would be good.
So if filmmakers like Fernando Meirelles are going to confront us with poverty in Rio de Janeiro, maybe we shouldn't just watch, but also listen, and also act.