This week: friendship, loyalty and desperation as World On Film travels to the slums of Rio de Janeiro for City Of Men. There’s also a brief stopover in British Indian Ocean Territory where a displaced people fight for their home. First up however, put the film City Of God out of your mind for the entirely unconnected:
City Of Men
(2007) Written by Elena Soarez & Paulo Morelli Directed by Paulo Morelli
The Rio de Janeiro landscape is nothing if not dramatic. The topography of the sprawling metropolis seems to be entirely in tune with the eclectic urban population that call it home. The city’s signature image is that glittering crescent-shaped downtown coastline with a mass of white skyscrapers filling the shore to the right with the shining blue sea taking prominence on the left while beyond, the solid stone massif of Sugar Loaf Mountain defines the background. And yet, while it is surely the most striking of Rio de Janeiro’s natural landmarks, it is by no means anomalous to the rest of the capital’s layout. Pointed mountains are peppered across the landscape, and in a city where real estate struggles to meet the demands of overpopulation, many of their slopes have been cannibalized for residence. In many cases, they stand as monuments to Rio’s enormous economic divide, being given over to crumbling, haphazard shanty towns known locally as favelas, often no-go areas for the authorities and the dominions therefore for the self-imposed fiefdoms of street gangs. In City Of Men, the audience is given a window into the lives of these would-be rulers and the struggling locals unfortunate enough to be caught up in their affairs.
The wider storyline, taking place primarily on the marvellously-subtle ‘Dead End Hill’, concerns a power struggle between gang leader Madrugadao (translated as ‘Midnight’ in my subtitles), disgruntled members of his group and rival gangs on nearby hills with plans to take over his territory. Caught in the middle of all this are the film’s two lead characters, Acerola and Laranjinha, friends since childhood and now facing the burdens of adulthood. Driven by a shared quest to find out the identity of their long-lost fathers, they discover that the past is sometimes better left buried. The drama brings into sharp focus the personal tragedies inevitable in such an environment: children with no future drawn into gangs, the almost-impossible struggle to raise a family, and the ever-present spectre of death in a world ruled by jungle law. Yet through the close bond forged between the two friends, the fragile flames of friendship and loyalty may be just enough to help them escape the chaos.
One of City Of Men’s strongest assets is its visual authenticity, having been shot at least partially on location at a genuine shanty town, which communicates the desperation and poverty of the world its characters inhabit with instant verisimilitude and sadness. The winding narrow streets stretching up Dead End Hill (or ‘Morro da Sinuca’ in the original) cut through faded blocks of sloppily-bonded iron and brick, inside which the simple and aged cheap detritus of the population offer silent indication as to the tiny fortunes and aspirations of each individual. The hill is a world apart from the wealth and stability far below, as though natural geography itself has drawn the line between them. Despite its dilapidated state and the aura of human misery, even this corner of the city manages to be picturesque. Cinematographer Adriano Goldman has striven to capture every angle of this world in all its mottled shades and succeeded brilliantly.
“The drama brings into sharp focus the personal tragedies inevitable in [a shanty town ruled by gang warfare]: children with no future drawn into gangs, the almost-impossible struggle to raise a family, and the ever-present spectre of death in a world ruled by jungle law.”
Robust too is the acting. Douglas Silva and Darlan Cunha as Acerola and Laranjinha respectively, do not fail to convince as the two orphans thrust together by hardship and circumstance, inhabiting their characters with ease. So too do the rest of the cast, and also notable is Pedro Henrique as Caju, the glory-seeking youth unwaveringly keen to do his bit for Dead End Hill and not at all fazed by his first firearm.
It was not until after viewing the film that I learned City Of Men is actually the concluding chapter to the popular Brazilian television series of the same name, in which we see the aforementioned characters presented here at an earlier time in their lives. Indeed, the film often flashes back to scenes from the series in order to establish the longstanding friendship between the two leads. It is not, in addition, connected to the more famous exploration along similar themes, City Of God, which apparently sets many up for disappointment. City Of Men, it turns out, is the concluding chapter to the series, with a built-in audience of fans who have travelled with the cast for several years.
Which is doubtless the ideal way to approach the film, for taken on its own without any background knowledge or emotion invested in the characters, City Of Men offers little in the way of original storytelling, being ultimately a fairly straightforward gangster drama with a fairly predictable ending. While its wonderfully-captured visuals have left a lasting impression with me, the unremarkable plot already fades into memory with little to stop it. Director and series writer Paulo Morelli, and scriptwriter and fellow series scribe Elena Soaraz have presented a screenplay that provides the newcomer with all the background information required to jump into their world without difficulty. The result is more than entertaining enough for the duration, but says nothing new as a film in its own right. For the fans though, City Of Men will be a fond farewell to beloved characters, and the nostalgia value will be enough to take it to the next level. It just doesn’t work quite so well as a stand-alone picture.
I would recommend therefore that interested parties avail themselves of the series if at all possible and hold off on City Of Men until the end, which will doubtless prove more rewarding. While the film can be viewed separately, and is worth it alone for the cinematography, it will fail to resonate in the say way it does for its most ardent supporters.
To learn more about the original series, visit here.
To see the official website (in Portuguese), click here.
British Indian Ocean Territory
In late 2010, whistleblower site Wikileaks released documents disclosing efforts by the British government to turn the distant protectorate of islands known as British Indian Ocean Territory into a marine reserve. The archipelago had, once upon a time, been home to the Chagossians, the ethnic group of the region, principally settled on the island of Diego Garcia. In the 19th Century, the islands became part of the British colony of Mauritius (formerly possessed by France), however, when Mauritius was granted independence in 1965 (taking effect in 1968), they were separated and became what is now known as British Indian Ocean Territory. Over the next 8 years, the approximately 2,000 inhabitants were forcibly relocated by the British government when it was decided that Diego Garcia was of sufficient strategic importance to host a military base. The facility was constructed in 1971, leased to the U.S. by England, and bearing the ironic designation Camp Justice.
Those in search of it meanwhile were relocated to the islands of Mauritius, the Seychelles (both of which now lay claim to the territory) and the U.K. from where they would spend the next four decades protesting what they declared an illegal act. A 2006 High Court ruling agreed with them, however a 2008 ruling by the House of Lords supported the contention that the British government had a ‘royal prerogative’ to hold the archipelago. The Wikileaked documents outline the proposal by the British government in 2009 to turn the waters surrounding the islands into a “marine reserve”. This would then “assure that U.S. interests were safeguarded and the strategic value of BIOT was upheld”, as well as make it “difficult, if not impossible, [for the native Chagossians] to pursue their claim for resettlement on the islands if the entire Chagos Archipelago were a marine reserve”.
While unsurprisingly therefore, BIOT is not known for its film industry, its history is certainly worthy of a screenplay, though these days, the Chagossians would probably be depicted as blue-skinned inhabitants of a moon fighting the evil ‘Britcorp’ for their lucrative territory.
A nation experiencing the birth pains of social change. An irreconcilable generation gap. A frightened population looking for scapegoats. A man fighting for his sanity. Chaos and hope in the ambitious Bulgarian film Eastern Plays when World On Film returns. Click below to view a trailer – unsubtitled, but you’ll get the idea.
World On Film goes all-Azerbaijan, all the time this week with a double feature. First up is the uncomplicated but lighthearted enjoyable fluff of Bu da belə, followed by the full-length ‘straight-to-video’ terribleness that is Şeytanın Tələsi. Just what do these two untranslated titles mean? Read on…
Bu da belə
(2009) (Director unknown)
Bu da belə, or ‘That’s It’, as it translates into English, is a lightly amusing short film, running just over 3 minutes, about a man struggling to bring his girlfriend a new television for her birthday up the stairs of her rather dilapidated urban apartment in the absence of a functioning elevator. With the many obstacles he encounters on the way up, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Donkey Kong. The film’s title is taken from the last line of dialogue, which neatly sums up his ordeal. I once had to spend a day helping relatives move furniture in and out of their 3rd-floor apartment that was equally devoid of elevators, so I know exactly how he feels. The short runs at just about the right length given the premise and star performer Qurban Ismayilov has a good, expressive face for what is essentially a visual comedy. Nəsibə Eldarova plays the girlfriend. The film was made in 2009 and is actually quite easy to find online if you look in the obvious places. You’d be ill-advised to bother doing so with the next feature, however.
“I couldn’t help but be reminded of Donkey Kong.”
(2006) Directed by Tanriverdi Allahverdiyev
“I warned you many times not to play with the balls of other people.”
I am not a major fan of martial arts films, so when I do watch one, I expect it to have charismatic actors, decent production values and of course spectacular fight scenes. Şeytanın Tələsi, however, contained acting more wooden than a pine chest, the production values of a finger painting and fight scenes seemingly choreographed by a coma patient. I quickly found myself in more pain than anyone having their face rearranged on screen, and constantly fighting the urge to walk away and stare at the wall in search of something more entertaining. Given the many entries in the Azerbaijani film repertoire, I feel sure I simply picked the Middle Eastern equivalent of a Steven Seagal and that there are far better offerings from the Caspian nation waiting for me. In case you’re wondering why I therefore picked this one, it was the only Azeri-language film I could get hold of with English subtitles (The 40th Door has been screened at film festivals, but a copy wasn’t available). Of course I say ‘English’…
Whoever translated Şeytanın Tələsi clearly felt that anything more than a basic understanding of the dialogue would be a great extravagance. For all I know, the film could have had a script written by the Azerbaijani equivalent of Francis Bacon and the washboard-flat performances therein are the result of exquisitely subtle delivery. Not that I believe this for a second, but at the very least, I cannot condemn the writers for the bad dialogue that continually stabbed at my eyes whenever it appeared on screen. This did not always occur when it was supposed to – there were several occasions when lines of dialogue simply weren’t translated – most unbelievably of all during the inevitable climactic fight sequence. “What will be the end of this story?” one character asks with more stiltedness than a man with two artificial legs. ‘No idea,’ I replied from the other side of the glass, rapidly losing the will to live, ‘just so long as it comes soon.’
“I cannot condemn the writers for the bad dialogue that continually stabbed at my eyes whenever it appeared on screen.”
It may therefore come as no surprise that I didn’t fully pin down every nuance of the plot, although not being a cinematic adaptation of Wittgenstein, it wasn’t a total mystery either. Major Vagif Asadov (or Assadov – we are presumably offered two spellings as part of some sort of lexically-symbolic attempt at character depth) is a member of the nation’s equivalent of Special Branch, the FBI, or, given his passing resemblance to Zippy, the Rainbow House. Asadov oversees a sting operation intercepting a drug shipment supplied by Devil Barasa, an underground kingpin. Knowing Barasa will target his family in an act of revenge, Asadov sends his young son Yusif into the care of Azerbaijani karate master Tanrivaldi, who agrees to take his new young protégé into the forest to train him. Unfortunately, Team Barasa gets wind of this and set about the task of retrieving their ‘bargaining chip’. I could elaborate further, but I will avoid spoiling things on the off-chance that someone is mad enough to watch the film for themselves. Suffice to say, some rather dubious karate is involved. And just in case the audience isn’t convinced that Barasa and his henchmen are the villains of the piece, the actors helpfully elicit evil pantomime laughs when events are swinging their way.
One thing about Şeytanın Tələsi that seems abundantly clear to me is the lack of budget. This surely explains the hideous post-production work, to name one of the film’s many crimes. Like many a martial arts feature, sound effects are dubbed over the fight scenes to give them a more visceral feel. Unfortunately, the film’s audio geniuses don’t seem too keen to make them at least halfway-realistic. Swinging fists make swooping sounds like rotating helicopter blades, while connecting fists sound suspiciously like someone punching their own hand. Even more mystifying are the entirely misplaced sounds, such as the sudden swell of running streams and birdsong during a scene where two characters are traversing the busy streets of Baku.
“Swinging fists make swooping sounds like rotating helicopter blades, while connecting fists sound suspiciously like someone punching their own hand.”
Then there’s the musical portion of the soundtrack. Anyone who’s seen an episode of the original Star Trek will know that part of what makes its score so memorable is the repetition of its musical motifs. Typically, a number of cues would be recorded for the season and then repeatedly used throughout according to the action on screen. There were just enough pieces in the tank to cover all the major emotions. However for Şeytanın Tələsi, possibly in a clever attempt at Phillip Glass minimalism, the producers decide to follow the same approach with only two musical cues – one for ‘touching’ scenes, another covering ‘action’ sequences. For 90 minutes. There may have been a third, but since my neighbour was playing a cd at the time, I can’t be too certain. Assuming the viewer isn’t completely sick to death of this musical torture after the first half-hour, they may afterward feel an alarming urge to play something from the Commodore 64 collection. If your film budget can’t stretch to more than a couple of tunes, I’d consider silence as a viable alternative.
Not that silence doesn’t play a part in the story. The film is peppered with long sequences where characters seem to be engaged in discussion, but rather than make the audience privy to their dialogue, we are instead forced to lip-read a muted scene while ‘Music #1’ helpfully reminds us that we are watching two people speak. Halfway through, the dialogue cuts in, the content of which suggesting that whatever the speakers were discussing earlier, it can’t have been anything more than the football scores, as we soon hear their reason for meeting verbalized in full. Still it’s not the first time the director attempts to help the viewer understand what they’re watching, given that he felt the need to have someone state the film’s title while the title card was on screen. A kind perspective might perhaps suggest the muted dialogue scenes are in fact a filmic convention. An accurate one might suggest that Şeytanın Tələsi‘s overseers were struggling to fill up 86 minutes – something I strongly suspect given that the film concludes with a completely unrelated music video in which, via the magic of chroma key, the actor playing Yousef, for no discernible reason, stands against a very fake projected background practicing karate moves while simultaneously performing what I presume is a traditional Azerbaijani dance. How this relates to the drama that preceded it I would imagine can only be determined by transcending to a higher level of consciousness.
“A kind perspective might perhaps suggest the muted dialogue scenes are in fact a filmic convention. An accurate one might suggest that Şeytanın Tələsi‘s overseers were struggling to fill up 86 minutes.”
Mercifully, those 86 minutes do finally come to an end – the fact that they felt more like 586 minutes will scar me for life. Interestingly, when attempting to translate the film’s title, Şeytanın Tələsi would come to read ‘Telecine Of Evil’, or even ‘Satan’s Telecine’. No doubt the overwhelmingly-diligent subtitler would have been more than happy with that (would anyone care to enlighten me as to the actual translation?). If indeed demonic influence was involved, it was entirely successful, though for the wrong reasons.
Instead Of This
And with that, World On Film comes to the end of this first analytical foray into flickering foreign projections. I’ll be taking time off for about a month to recharge my batteries and catch up on other things strongly neglected. Several film reviews for countries beginning with ‘B’ have already been written, so the tracks are already being laid for the next ‘series’, as it were, which will begin in the warm, watery climes of the Bahamas. This does not however mean the onset of tumbleweeds bouncing with reckless abandon across the blog. I will continue to abuse this sector of cyberspace in the interim with my rambling waffle on matters dubiously connected with the World On Film raison d’etre.
Coming next time therefore, I delve into the world of alternative film soundtracks, or more accurately, one in particular. If you can guess the relationship between a dark, spectral figure haunting a French music hall and a famous English prog rocker, you’ll be halfway there. Plans are also afoot to try and visit the 2010 Pusan International Film Festival next week and if they come to fruition, the blog will be here to provide an autopsy of the journey’s dead and rotting corpse. Don’t quite know where I’m going with this analogy, so I will simply sign off…until next time.