Clanging and cantankerous, “God Loves the Fighter” is a sight for sore eyes, though it also might make them sorer. The first feature-length film from writer/director Damian Marcano, it is a dance hall reggae opera pulsing with the rhythms of Port-au-Spain’s gritty Laventville neighborhood, and it is ablaze with a never-ending explosion of color in every sense of that word. Narrated by Lou Lyons as street person King Curtis, a sort of rap-poet Greek chorus who exposes the real dirt behind local news headlines, it focuses on the story of Charlie (The Freetown Collective’s Muhammad Muwakil), a young guy pulled down by the criminal elements that surround him.
Though at times it feels more like a feature-length music video than anything since Baz Luhrmann’s “Gatsby,” this is a wholly original endeavor – and not only because, as a Trinidadian gangster movie, it serves up a much-needed corrective to the excuses for celeb vacations that are Hollywood films set in the Caribbean. Shot during the 2011 state of emergency to fight crime that was declared by Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, “God Loves the Fighter” whirls in a dust cloud of past and present, fantasy and nightmare, and prostitution, church confessionals, and cocaine. Relentless and sweaty, scenes blur into each other with the beautiful intensity of a heat map – all sea greens, bold reds, and black skin that is properly lit (which is still a shameful rarity). Eventually, though, a too-pat tale emerges from the clamor. In fact, as presented by Curtis, the film actually booms its messages at us in a big basso profundo; even its subtitles bellow in neon yellow.
Charlie may be trying to do the right thing but, penniless and starving, he’s lured astray by his old pal Stone (Abdi Waithe), who flaunts a gun named “God” and gets him a job running drugs along with a taxi driver called Moses (Simon Junior John). Aided by Dinah (model Jamie Lee Phillips), a working girl who’s equally well-intentioned and beleaguered, Charlie attempts to save a little girl from an especially nasty fate but runs afoul of Putao (Darren Cheewah), a drug lord and pimp king decked out in red panties, a fauxhawk, and a virulent streak of racism. Along the way, car horns blare, street lights glare, and gunfire is an unhappy Muzak. Ladies in glorious afros strut their stuff with lowered lids. Sleepy-eyed men smoke perpetually lit cigarettes and play mournful sax solos as women rage. “The children will die because of your assholeness!” cries one husband as his curlers-sporting wife beats him with a spatula. (Women are shrews or broken angels, as in most gangster films.) Defeated-looking priests storm and bleat. “Consider the Church a service center that God has left for your complaints,” mutters one.
Comparisons inevitably will be made to the Rio de Janeiro drama “City of God” (2002), Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Amores Peros” (2000), and, of course, the Jimmy Cliff Jamaican vehicle “The Harder They Come” (1972). In fact, elements of all those films can be found here. But with its epic, rushing detail and passion for backstories, “God Loves the Fighter” reminds me most of Martin Scorsese by way of early Spike Lee. Certainly, with its bad boy struggling to make good, whore with a heart of gold, charismatic drug baron, and theatrical obsession with weaponry, its plot is not burdened by an excess of innovation. What’s groundbreaking is the patois, which is not only linguistic but visual and narrative – less montage than collage or even diorama, like a fun house in the middle of a punk horror film. Though he takes his title from a beloved Trinidad poem, it is not clear from this Shakespearean maelstrom whether Marcano really thinks God loves the fighter. Rest assured, though: There’s plenty to love in his fascinatingly flawed tattoo of a film.
This was originally published in Word and Film.