City of God
Reviewed by Paul Julian Smith
Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.
Rio de Janeiro, 1960s. Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues) is an 11-year-old boy in the favela or shanty town of Cidade de Deus (City of God). As he grows up he watches the other children around him. He first focuses on the small-time gangsters called the Tender Trio: Shaggy (Jonathan Haagensen), Clipper (Jefechander Suplino) and Goose (Renato de Souza). The group dissolve after they carry out an armed robbery of a brothel. Shaggy is killed by police.
As we move into the 1970s brutal psychopath Li'l Ze (Leandro Firmino da Hora) (formerly Li'l Dice) takes over the new drug-dealing business. We later learn that his first taste of murder was at the brothel. Ze is barely held in check by Bené (Phellipe Haagensen), a less violent hoodlum. Meanwhile Rocket has acquired a camera and starts to hang out at a newspaper office. Bené is accidentally murdered at his farewell party and Ze rapes the girlfriend of peaceful Knockout Ned. Reluctantly Ned allies himself with Carrot, another big drug baron, and by the early 1980s gang warfare has completely taken over the ghetto. Ned is killed in a final shoot-out. Ze, freed by corrupt police, is shot by a child gangster. Rocket becomes a professional photographer.
If Amores perros is the Mexican Pulp Fiction, then City of God is the Brazilian GoodFellas, or so the publicity people tell us. The comparison isn't unapt, for Fernando Meirelles' brilliant second feature has the epic sweep of Martin Scorsese's masterpiece. Ranging over three decades of gang warfare in the ironically named real-life favela or slum city outside Rio de Janeiro, it boasts a huge cast of non-professional actors (trained at a performance school on site) and whittles down the hundreds of characters in its source novel by Paulo Lins to a still-bewildering juvenile horde.
This broad canvas brings a real sense of history. Sun-drenched games of football among the neat cookie-cutter bungalows of the 1960s give way to still-innocent hold-ups which gradually segue into the unstinting slaughter of the 1980s, when it seemed that Vietnam had come to Brazil. Far from glorying in violence, Meirelles shows us clearly, almost clinically, its causes and consequences: a single vicious rape (mercifully unshown), for instance, sparks full-scale gang warfare. As the guns get bigger, the thugs get smaller. The most notorious gangster is shot by a tiny child keen to muscle in on the lucrative drugs trade.
The main themes emerge as if naturally from this maelstrom. There's the contrast between Bené and Li'l Zé, the twin 'good' and 'bad' gangsters we've followed from childhood. Self-effacing Rocket, who provides the unobtrusive voiceover, grows into a central artist figure, documenting his home turf with a camera. The intricate narrative artfully loops back on itself, thickening the stew. The gang's first job, robbing clients caught in the act at a brothel, is shown for a second time, but now with a tragic coda: a gleeful child massacres the victims his elders had left alive. Two hours into the running time cheeky intertitles proclaim 'The Beginning of the Film'. A chicken chased by the camera in the opening sequence stumbles into the final battle between warring factions.
City of God, then, is not without humour. When one gangster hijacks a clapped-out car he ends up pushing it. And the quick cutting of the first scene (a blade sharpened, a drum beaten, a chicken careering through the slums) announces bravura film-making. The handheld cameras rarely rest. We're treated to slow and fast motion, expressionist coloured filters, even Matrix-style circling around combatants. The sequences set in the 1970s break into split screen. The image is degraded and saturated, in the style of Amores perros: shiny black skin gleams in the dark as the young rebels hide out in damp trees; the taste of the tropics has rarely been felt as viscerally as it is here. Meirelles also stages huge set-pieces with unerring aplomb. At Bené's farewell party, where all musical styles are welcome (guests even get down to 'Kung Fu Fighting'), pleasure slides into horror as carnage breaks out to the jerky rhythm of a strobe. The brilliant stylisation here could not be further from the miserabilist neo-realism of earlier Latin American urban cinema. And Meirelles has no political agenda to rub in the audience's face; more subtly, like Scorsese, he takes us so far into the characters' world that we, like they, can imagine no life outside this inner circle of hell.
Surprisingly for a film with such an advance reputation for violence, City of God is remarkably reticent. We have to wait an hour for a truly distressing sequence (the torture of a child) and almost two for a Hollywood-style shoot-out, crackling with Uzi fire. Slowly the main theme comes through. Although the film's child protagonists are hardly innocent, the Brazilian media must take some of the blame for their violent lifestyles, paying attention to the favelas only when they break into spectacular gang warfare. After his photos are first published in a newspaper, Rocket fears he's a dead man. Back in the ghetto, however, vainglorious gang leaders are only too happy to pose for him. The last battle is shown largely through Rocket's viewfinder, a telling equation of photographic and military sightlines. War and cinema converge. And the final credits have a new twist. Documentary video footage replays a scene we've just seen acted out for us. The contrast shows both the brilliance of the film's recreation of reality and the intractability of the problems it treats. The real-life City of God remained too dangerous for the film-makers to shoot in (they used neighbouring slums, marginally safer). But this marvellous film still testifies to the awesome creativity of Brazil's underclass.
- Fernando Meirelles
- Andréa Barata Ribeiro
- Mauricio Andrade Ramos
- Braulio Mantovani
- Based on the novel by
- Paulo Lins
- Director of Photography
- Cesar Charlone
- Daniel Rezende
- Art Director
- Tulé Peake
- Antônio Pinto
- Ed Côrtes