City of God (Cidade de Deus)

City of God

Talk about reaching a dead end.

(Miramax) Alexandre Rodrigues, Leandro Firmino, Phellipe Haagensen, Douglas Silva, Jonathan Haagensen, Matheus Nachtergaele, Seu Jorge, Jefechander Suplino, Alice Braga. Directed by Fernando Meirelles

When you think of Rio de Janeiro, perhaps you think of the impeccable beaches there, or the world-class nightlife, or the seductive music. Most folks don’t think of poverty and crime and yet Rio has plenty of both, also in world-class numbers.

One of the worst areas of Rio is known as Cidade de Deus or the City of God. It was created by the Brazilian government to move the very poor away from the center of the city, and then was basically abandoned by any form of authority, leaving the residents to fend for themselves. The slum, or favela became ruled by vicious gangs.

Rocket (Rodrigues) is a young man, son of a fisherman who yearns to get out of the slums and become a photographer. His brother, who runs in a gang called the Tender Trio, is later ambushed and murdered by a young boy named Lil Dice (Silva) who grows up to be called Lil Ze (Firmino). Ze’s bloodlust is nigh insatiable and he rises to the top of the gangs of Cidade de Deus by simply killing off all his rivals, or putting them to work for him. He is prone to fits of violence and when one of these rages leads to him taking out most of a family, their remaining son Knockout Ned (Jorge) declares war on Ze, aided by one of the few remaining rival gang leaders (Nachtergaele).

This is a vibrant movie in which the camera constantly moves and captures images of color and ferocity. The people of Cidade de Deus live in a warzone and accept that’s their lot in life. I’m sure that is not unlike the attitudes of the residents of Baghdad and Kabul.

Director Meirelles tells the story in a non-linear fashion, often taking tangents into the backstories of important categories, or revisiting events previously related to show them from another viewpoint and explain why characters aren’t reacting as you’d expect they would. It sounds like that would make things hard to follow, but in reality that’s not the case.

The performances of the mostly unknown cast are natural and unforced, resonating with a certain amount of realism. Their reactions may bother some viewers until you consider that these characters live with the kind of violence and degradation depicted here on a daily basis; this is nothing new for them, nothing to get worked up over. For them, it’s the equivalent of having to deal with a particularly annoying telephone solicitor.

There is a great deal of violence, but not more than you would find in a comparable Scorsese film. There are also moments of comedy that transcend the sheer misery of life in the favelas of Brazil. Some publications have called this one of the ten best movies ever made. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but this is certainly one of the more inventive and arresting movies made in the last decade. Although the characters themselves are fictional, the events depicted here are based on things that actually happened in Cidade de Deus in the 1960s and 1970s. The author of the novel the movie is based on lived there during that period and knew many of the combatants. That makes the movie all the more sobering.

WHY RENT THIS: Extraordinarily film of a place rarely captured on film; Mereilles brings the violence and amorality to life of a gang-run slum.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too real for some.

FAMILY VALUES: The filmmakers are matter-of-fact about drug use, violence and sexuality; they are intrinsically part of the story, and while not handled in an exploitative way, I would sincerely hesitate to let anyone other than the most mature of teens view this.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Nearly all of the actors had no previous experience and many of them lived in the actual Cidade de Deus itself.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: An hour-long featurette on the real drug war in Rio is included.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $30.6M on an estimated $3.3M production budget; the film was a smash hit.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: Ladron Que Roba a Ladron

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