Film

UNDERWORLD INTRIGUES

Brian D. Johnson February 10 2003
Film

UNDERWORLD INTRIGUES

Brian D. Johnson February 10 2003

UNDERWORLD INTRIGUES

Three period dramas unfold in foreign cities riven by undeclared wars

Film

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

THE SLUMS OF RIO, the bars of Saigon, the Berlin Wall. These are the respective settings for City of God, The Quiet American and The Tunnel, three period movies about undeclared wars. They’re all dramas of divided cities. They all bear the tattoo of authenticity that comes from being shot on location in places still scarred by the stories they tell. And at a time when the Hollywood studios are in the thick of an Oscar campaignbeating the drum for sound-stage extravaganzas like Gangs of New York, The Two Towers and Chicago—it’s refreshing to see movies that are grounded in the realpolitik of a recognizable world.

City of God, itself an Oscar contender for best foreign film, is the most popular movie in Brazil in decades. The title refers to the Cidade de Deus, a massive housing project created in the 1960s on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro to warehouse the poor. Based on the epic novel by Brazil’s Paulo Lins, the story tracks the lives of gunslinging children who grow up to become teenage drug lords. The movie was shot in two other favelas, or ghettos—in one of them, permission had to be secured from the local drug baron. Most of the cast’s 100 adolescent boys were recruited from city slums, through an acting school created by the filmmakers. The result is a raw, urgent

realism, cauterized with a red-hot sense of style. Imagine the street kids of the Brazilian classic Pixote in a Third World Scarface directed with the time-shifting sleight of hand of Mexico’s Amores Perros. Or imagine a leaner, meaner Martin Scorsese, without the Catholic guilt.

From the opening sequence of a chicken being chased through the streets—with the camera adopting the chicken’s point of view— City of God is on a mission to entertain. Shooting from the hip, Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles choreographs the action as a carnival of kinetic energy. And it’s set to a soundtrack that shimmies from bossa nova to samba to James Brown funk, as the drama escalates from a delinquent dance of cops ’n’ robbers to cocaine-cold murder. The narrative vaults through three eras, the late ’60s, the 70s and early ’80s, with teenagers replacing child actors in the same roles. Like so many gangster movies, this one’s a rite of passage from innocence to corruption (all fun and games until someone loses an eye). And the racing narrative recalls the adrenalin vortex of Goodfellas— with the main character calling the play-byplay in a densely narrated memoir.

The narrator is a budding photographer named Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), a neighbourhood kid on the edge of the action. In the ’60s, he’s an 11-year-old hanging out with a gang of small-time hoods, who include his brother. They have cartoon names like Shaggy, Clipper and Goose. A ruthless leader emerges from the pack, a teen drug dealer named Li’l Zé (Leandro Firmino da Hora), who has a psychopathic taste for killing and torture. Li’l Zé’s sidekick is the cool, good-natured Benny (Phellipe Haagensen), who tries to keep his partner in check. All hell breaks loose after a bus conductor named Knockout Ned joins a rival drug dealer to avenge his girlfriend’s rape. And soon gang war is raging through the Cidade de Deus until no one can even remember why—“people get used to living in Vietnam,” says Rocket.

Wrapped inside this darkening underworld drama is Rocket’s own modest redemption. On the beach, he makes a play for a nymph named Angelica (Alice Braga, niece of Sonja) only to lose her to Benny, who gives him a stolen camera—which Rocket will use to literally shoot his way out of the ghetto. In City of God, photography serves as a compound metaphor, with cinematographer César Charlone flaunting his own cowboy marksmanship. This is a movie about shooting, and shooting. Behind it, in the ochre vistas of the favela’s dirt streets and the harsh eyes of the children, there are breathtaking glimpses of Rio’s social reality. After two hours of dizzying mayhem, that almost gets lost in the dust. And we’re left with Gangs of Rio, a bravura feat of film-making. But it sure beats Gangs of New York.

The Quiet American is, well, quieter.

Despite some opulent visuals from cinematographer Chris Doyle (who shot Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love), there’s nothing virtuosic about its old-fashioned style. Filmed in Ho Chi Minh City dressed as colonial Saigon, this is an elegant period piece in which everything, from the background rickshaws to the strident soundtrack, seems a little stagy. Fortunately, however, there’s more to movies than style. Drawing an Oscar-calibre performance from Michael Caine, Australian director Phillip Noyce has fashioned an honest and remarkably relevant adaptation of Graham Greene’s prescient 1955 novel, which exposes the roots of American interference in Vietnam.

Set in 1952, it’s the story of a triangle, both romantic and political. Englishman Tom Fowler (Caine) is a jaded, opium-smoking journalist based in French colonial Saigon. He’s shacked up with a young Vietnamese beauty named Phuong, but can’t marry her because his Catholic wife back home refuses to give him a divorce. Enter Alden Pyle, an American aid worker in an ice-cream suit played by a callow Brendan Fraser. Pyle makes friends with Fowler, then promptly falls in love with his girlfriend. It’s soon apparent that Pyle’s aw-shucks show of naive charm is a CIA cover for more insidious designs—sponsoring a Third Force, led by the puppet General Thé, to challenge the French and the Communists.

Caine, who spent so much of his mid-career as a journeyman star, comes into his own as Fowler. He’s found the sad, end-of-empire bookend to the rogue characters that launched his career, the likes of Alfie and Harry Palmer. With his heavy-lidded eyes

These movies bear the tattoo of authenticity that comes from being shot in places still scarred by the stories they tell

and sly mouth, he’s perfectly cast as this roué skimming the cream of colonialism. Fowler’s a complex character, with an empathetic conscience lurking behind a lazy posture of being blithely uninvolved. And this old man’s devotion to the childlike mistress is by turns touching and creepy. As Phuong, meanwhile, Vietnam’s Do Hai Yen (who had to learn English for the role) acts with a nervous poise that seems utterly appropriate. The film’s one weak spot is Fraser. He seems just too bland and too contemporary to be credible as an American spy in ’50s Saigon. And his chemistry with Do Hai Yen is nil.

In the end, Noyce’s drama has more political than emotional impact. He remains more faithful to Greene’s novel than Joseph L. Mankiewicz, whose 1958 version of The Quiet American turned its politics upside down in a bald act of Cold War revisionism. Noyce, like Greene, casts America as the unassuming villain—there’s a scene of a car bomb massacre in a crowded square, a terrorist act rigged by the CIA and blamed on the Communists. That, no doubt, helped persuade Miramax to suppress the film’s release in the wake of Sept. 11. But now, with

an Iraq war looming, The Quiet American is more timely than ever. The movie concludes with a blistering fast-forward history of how the U.S. blundered into the Pandora’s box of Vietnam. And when Pyle describes America as a country of liberators, not colonialists—“We are here to save Vietnam from all of that”—the rhetoric sounds as fresh as last week’s State of the Union address.

The Tunnel is a Cold War thriller about a world that seems more safely locked in the past. It’s now hard to believe that in peacetime a wall once divided Berlin, and that people risked death trying to cross it. This German TV movie, now being theatrically released, tells the true story of a small group who spent nine months digging a 145-m tunnel under the Wall in 1961. They’re led by the bullheaded Harry Melchior (Heino Ferch), an East German swimming champion who has escaped to the West but is determined to rescue his sister, Lotte (Alexandra Maria Lara). The project’s mastermind is Harry’s best friend, Matthis (Sebastian Koch), an engineer who escaped through the sewers while his pregnant girlfriend, Carola, was caught and imprisoned by East German soldiers.

The story is riddled with cloak-and-dagger intrigue. On the East German side a Stasi colonel blackmails Carola into spying on Lotte. And among the tunnel team, a fiery gamine named Fritzi (Nicolette Krebitz) slips messages to her lover across the Wall. At times, the drama flirts with the tarted-up suspense of a TV movie, but it works. Besides, it all began as a TV movie, in 1961—we see an NBC crew negotiating to finance the tunnel in return for the right to film the digging and the escape. Now that’s reality TV. I?1