Released: August 30, 2002
a.k.a.: Cidade de Deus
Directors: Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund; Screenplay: Braulio Mantovani based on the novel “Cidade de Deus” by Paulo Lins; Cinematography: Cesar Charlone; Studios: 02 Filmes, Globo Filmes, StudioCanal, and Wild Bunch; Producers: Andrea Barata Ribeiro, Mauricio Andrade Ramos, Elisa Tolomelli, and Walter Salles
Cast: Alexandre Rodrigues (adult Rocket), Luis Otavio (child Rocket), Leando Firmino de Hora (Li’l Zé), Douglas Silva (Li’l Dice), Phellipe Haagensen (adult Benny), Michel de Souza (child Benny), Matheus Nachtergaele (Carrot), Seu Jorge (Knockout Ned), Jonathan Haagensen (Shaggy), Renato de Souza (Goose), Jefechander Suplino (Clipper), Edson Oliveira (adult Stringy), Ermerson Gomes (child Stringy), Alice Braga (Angelica), Daniel Zettel (Tiago), Darlan Cunha (Steak with Fries), Charles Paraventi (Uncle Sam), Graziella Moretto (Marina Cintra), Luiz Carlos Ribeiro (Bull), Mauricio Marques (Big Head)
Not many things in cinema are able to appall me. Sure, there are moments in films that might startle me or make me nervous. Or even passages of films that stick with me long after a movie ends, which I continually think about or grapple with. Rarely do I see something on screen that actually makes me uneasy to the point that I want to look away, particularly in regards to violence. Perhaps I’m just too desensitized to the point that such things don’t have great impact on me. Even more likely, I think I’m able to put what I’m seeing into context, which makes it much more palatable – in other words, I’m not horrified by the violence in Goodfellas, because I know what such a life, and movie, entails. But one particular scene in City of God managed to make me squirm. When a kid, aspiring to become a neighborhood hoodlum, is forced to choose which of two young boys to shoot in order to prove his mettle, it was hard for me to even watch the scene. The skill with which the scene was directed, the tension created by the script, it all comes together perfectly – you react to it as I did, “horribly” in a good way. That scene is seared into my mind, the one image I can’t shake from this incredible account of life in the slums of Rio de Janeiro.
Certainly a great film is not found in a single scene, but for me it undercuts the key criticism that is leveled against City of God: the fact that it retreads a lot of ground that has been covered in previous crime films. To be certain, the influences of American crime dramas are obvious – the realistic, documentary feel of Martin Scorsese’s early works, the quirkiness and sometimes humorous episodic structure of a Tarantino film, the childhood to adulthood scope of countless gangster films. I’ve seen some claim that the only difference is setting the film in the favela of Brazil. Maybe this is true, but it glosses over what an enormous variation this is. Exploring an underworld that most viewers know very little about, it looks at issues of crime and life in the ghetto differently than any of the previously mentioned films. And in the end, its answers, or lack thereof, are no easier to digest than the scene I described in the first paragraph.
The technically dazzling opening sequence sets the overall theme of the movie, as the main character Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues) finds himself literally caught in a standoff – old comrades from the Cidade de Deus slums where he grew up on one side, the state police on the other. Rocket grew up in the favela (roughly translating as "slum") in the 1960s, but always remained on the fringes of criminal activity. He sees his brother Goose (Renato de Souza), part of a legendary gang called the “Tender Trio” along with partners in crime Shaggy (Jonathan Haagensen) and Clipper (Jefechander Suplino), lose his life over menial street crime. Instead, Rocket concentrates on school as best he can while growing up in the ghetto, following more carefree pursuits like his crush on the gorgeous Angelica (Alice Braga) and smoking the occasional joint with friends. Moving into the 70s, Rocket remains on the fringes of crime, hanging out with others that are involved in the rampant drug trade, but never becoming directly involved himself. Instead, he focuses on his dream of becoming a photographer, working odd jobs in order to earn enough cash to purchase his own first-rate equipment.
Such noble pursuits are rare in the City of God, however, as most boys grow up idolizing the drug dealers and hoodlums that control the area. The prime example of this is Li’l Dice (Douglas Silva), a boy who followed the Tender Trio around like a mascot. With a quick temper and unmatched bloodlust, by the time he is eighteen he is running a large part of the City of God. Rechristening himself Li’l Zé (Leando Firmino de Hora), he teams up with best friend Benny (Phellipe Haagensen) and sets his sights on taking over the drug trade in the entire ghetto. This inevitably leads to clashes with other drug dealers, as they battle for turf. Li’l Zé's first reaction to any resistance is to kill everyone who opposes them. But Benny is the mild-mannered partner, the only one who can calm his pal. Eventually tension begins to build even between the two friends, as Benny drifts away from a life of crime and falls in love with Angelica.
There are other sub-strands to the story that really make the Cidade de Deus favela come alive. Even minor characters have personality and colorful names. Carrot, the local drug dealer who rises to prominence through his persistence and loyalty to previous bosses. The decade-long history of the apartment that once served as his headquarters is told quickly and adeptly. Things like the neighborhood bar owner who is a dry snitch for local police who snaps when he catches his wife in bed with Goose. And the bus driver and karate expert everyone knows as Knockout Ned. Or the gang of “groovies” that Rocket begins to hang out with in his adolescence. Or the group of young “Runts,” kids in their pre-teens who terrorize the streets and local shop owners while mimicking the gangsters that they idolize. Really, the city itself is given such personality that it almost serves as a character in its own right. The City of God and its inhabitants truly come alive and it is the one constant throughout everything.
For a movie so brutal, very little of the violence is directly shown. There isn’t a lot in the way of blood and gore. But it in no way lessens the impact. The amazing thing is how natural it all is, how characters don’t seem to even give it a second thought. Even Benny, the one hood with a heart in the entire story, utilizes gunplay and violence when needed. He uses it sparingly in comparison to someone like Li’l Zé, but even so called “good guys” are drawn toward it at some point. Rocket even takes a gun at one point in time with plans to knock off a local bus driver for cash. Plans like this are ordinary to the teenagers in the city, even ones who don’t consider themselves criminals. The violence is particularly hard to stomach when it involves kids, which is quite often. And by “kids” I don’t mean teenagers, I mean actual kids. As in nine or ten year-olds toting guns and shooting former playmates. I’ve also seen complaints about the high body count, with the endless barrage of killings and the complete lack of caring at the deaths. Again, I think such critics are completely missing the point. It’s _supposed_ to get this reaction out of you. The fact that kids, teenagers and others are executed and nobody seems to care is one of the key statements of the film. It reiterates the fact that these killings are all too common and that it’s a vicious cycle taking place – one kid is brutally murdered, another steps right in to take his place. There’s no time to stop and mourn or analyze why it happened. The drug trade and violence continues.
The direction from Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund is as stylish as it gets, displaying technical chops and innovative camera work throughout. I already mentioned the opening sequence that is dazzling, but such technique really is on display over the course of the entire movie. There is much handheld camera work in following characters through the streets of the City of God, lending it any almost neorealist feel. What amazes me is how Meirelles and Lund are able to capture such a hip, stylish visual style while at the same time retaining the gritty, Mean Streets-like feel of the story. Also adding to this neorealist feeling is the fact that a majority of the actors were not professionals, but rather were found in real-life Brazilian favelas and cast into the film. That is incredible to me consider how smooth many of the performances are, particularly from all of the kids.
I won’t go as far as some who declare City of God to be on par with previous crime epics like The Godfather or Goodfellas, but it’s unfair for almost any other movie to be compared to those. I do think it’s a great film, portraying a city and a struggle that most people don’t often get to see. Plus, after taking Portuguese in college, this was the first foreign film I was ever able to watch and actually somewhat understand without subtitles. That’s got to be worth something, right?!
Other Contenders for 2002: Although I don’t usually think of 2002 as a banner year, looking at it now I realize that there are many, many outstanding films. As is the case with most of the 2000s, my exposure is primarily to American cinema, but this year I am actually somewhat well-rounded. Aside from City of God, there are others from around the world that I have to acknowledge. Yimou Zhang’s Hero is another entry on that short list of martial arts films that I like. Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen, or for that matter even heard of, but it’s incredibly fascinating. The whole approach is innovative and it’s surprising that anyone is able to pull it off this well. And finally, the exiled Roman Polanski’s The Pianist. While I don’t rank it as highly as many others, it’s still a masterful production from Polanski.
As for American cinema, favorites also abound. While I did not initially care much for Sam Mendes’ Road to Perdition, I’ve seen done a complete 180. The cinematography is gorgeous, on a near Malickian level (yes, I’m making that word up). It might now be my favorite Mendes film. I also have always been of the opinion that all three of the Lord of the Rings trilogy are basically on equal footing in terms of quality, so I have to include The Two Towers. The others I might not personally put on the same level as these two, but I also really like: Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes), Catch Me If You Can (Steven Spielberg), Adaptation (Spike Jonze).