CITY OF GOD
In the poor Brazilian housing project Cidade de Deus (City of God) in Rio de Janeiro, where organised crime and drugs make the neighbourhood violent, two boys growing up take a different path: one becomes a photographer, the other a powerful drug dealer. Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues) is a poor black kid who is too frail and scared to become an outlaw, but too smart to settle for too little. He eventually becomes a professional photographer, which is his redemption. Young L’il Dice (Douglas Silva) dreams of being Rio’s most dangerous criminal, a dream which he achieves, and even changes his name to L’il Ze (Leandro Firmino da Hora).
Review by Louise Keller:
A powerful and haunting film that explores the myriad of stories that lie deep within the slums of Rio, City Of God shocks, enlightens and above all affects us by taking us into a world where drugs and organised crime are a way of life. Often disturbing with its R rated violence, language and occasional nudity, director Fernando Meirelles’s intense and extraordinary film marries the rhythms and flavours of Rio seamlessly with the human drama. Based on a true story from Paolo Lins’ novel Cidade de Deus, effective structure and dazzling editing weaves the 60s and 80s together like a silken tapestry. The opening sequence is striking and memorable. Knives are sharpened on stone, vegetables chopped by knives, a chicken loses its head, the feathers are plucked, the guitars strum and the mood is set. It’s not until the end of the film that we realise the relevance of this scene and its consequence. While the story revolves around two men whose connection begins as children but whose choices propel them in different directions, this multi-layered film tells many stories of many different characters. They are all interconnected, and by getting an insight into all these different lives, we gather a greater understanding of how events come to pass and why the characters behave as they do. Hundreds of inexperienced unprofessional actors worked for months in improvisation groups in order to achieve the authenticity. The result is extraordinary; the cast is superb. Meirelles is a great storyteller and from the school playground when we meet Rocket and Lil Dice, we quickly learn that to be a hood you need more than guns, you need ideas. We feel the heat, breathe the dust, smell the squalor and sense the rhythms. We get a sense of what life is like on the streets – guns are passed out to kids like candy. They begin as drug delivery boys before becoming dealers and managers. I found it almost too hard to watch the scene when a boy is forced to kill one of two children crying on the gutter. To make matters worse, he has to choose which one to kill. This is a tough film and one that is impossible to watch without becoming involved. Effective cinematic techniques including split screen, accelerated movement and occasional rewinds of the action, all of which is accentuated by the constantly inventive and outstanding editing. The visceral music pumps its way through our veins for the entire 130 minutes, colouring the violence with the very brush that is Rio. And as the fates of Rocket and L’il Ze (formerly Dice) come together, they face each other with two very different weapons: a gun and a camera. The circle of life continues and we realise that we have only just had a small taste of life in The City of God. Uncompromising and totally unforgettable, this is an experience to savour.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
While attending the film festival in Rio de Janeiro in 1988, I stayed at a hotel which faced one of Rio’s famous favelas, clinging to a hillside. I’d look out of my window with mixed emotions as the kids played in the dirt, shacks crowded together defying gravity and held up by hope. I was also struck by the permanent display of washing hanging out of windows, on makeshift washing lines and wires. It was the reverse of the adage about hanging out dirty washing. Here was a hellhole whose inhabitants lived in the dirt of poverty yet had a phobia about clean clothes. It wasn’t the City of God project, but a real slum, and it was notorious as a place that bred violence and crime. But not as bad as City of God. And by 1988, the story that is told in City of God was already history. Beginning in the 60s, City of God (the name of the project to house homeless in a Rio suburb) is fictional but it is nevertheless based on true stories. And the film’s achievement is that it goes a long way toward shedding light on how and why the place became a graveyard for so many – and so many of them mere kids. It’s a film about the waste of life that can be triggered by the right – or wrong – conditions. We all profess to know that, but here it is portrayed in the powerful language of cinema. We cannot look away. Paolo Lins, born in City of God, spent eight years researching for his book, which is the basis of this film. Director Fernando Meirelles has found a very specific cinematic language to tell the story (condensed and edited from the 600 page book), a language that uses fast-forward and time shift techniques as a way of unsettling us and layering the images with tension, danger and uncertainty. This works well, although some clarity is lost; it takes some effort to recognise and keep up with the characters, the drugs, the changing relationships and the central story of young Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues) through the 15 odd year span of time. Rocket’s narration helps, and his deliverance from the City of God to a worthwhile life provides the one glimmer of light in this tragic film. It will sadden you and haunt you, and make you understand yet another aspect of the human condition.