A colorful and telling canvas about slum life in Rio de Janeiro, City of God (Cidade de Deus) has wasted little time in becoming an authentic classic of Brazilian cinema. The film admits numerous young characters, most of them distributed among different gangs over time, and a convoluted plot admitting elements of drug dealing, vicious criminal acts, and personal revenge. With nearly awesome flexibility and assurance, the directors of the film, Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, have shaken their material loose from what has become its obligatory Italian neorealist formulation. Theirs is what might be called “fingertip cinema,” light, quick, as urgent as a rush of blood.
The City of God’s name encapsulates the hope of Rio’s impoverished blacks for social and economic ascension. It is a housing project, built in the 1960s, that by the 1980s has evolved into a swarming cesspool of teenaged (and younger) street violence. What had been a society’s dumping-ground for Rio’s homeless thus exposes, over time, a nation’s genuine lack of concern for its poor: the provision of shelter that politicians can self-flatteringly point to, but not the jobs that might sustain families and move their lots up the socioeconomic ladder. Like West Side Story (Jerome Robbins, Robert Wise, 1961), City of God focuses on kids apart from their homes and parents—here, though, not as a sentimental device aimed at flattering young audiences, but as an expressive device exposing the hopelessness of youth. The generational handoff in this film isn’t from parents to offspring but from older gang to younger gang, as the former provides a model for upcoming gangs to emulate. Irony compounds irony, then, as kids cut themselves loose and are left to their own devices.
The film in particular follows two boys: Li’l Ze, who becomes a callous and powerful gangster, and Busca-Pé, too frail and sensitive for such a fate, who becomes a photographer—a variation on the Hollywood cliché wherein one kid becomes a gangster and the other a cop or a priest. It is Busca-Pé who narrates the film, his narrative moving from the 1980s back in time to the 1960s and 1970s. The film comes full circle, ending where it began, suggesting a Shakespearean instance of the cyclical nature of violence. One boy gets to photograph the other’s death—an act that may trigger his upward mobility in a society where violence sells. Busca-Pé notes that he won’t have to worry about Li’l Ze’s killing him anymore, but he will still have to worry about the police. Irony compounds irony compounds irony.
What a grab-bag of stylistic influences this film admits, with all of these coming from U.S. movies of the past fifteen years. The narration suggests Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas (1990), and the wrap-around structure, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994); other moments show the influence of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) and Andy and Larry Wachowski’s The Matrix (1999). Yet the film proceeds at such a rapid and assured pace that none of the borrowings separate out. Moreover, the film’s greatest coup, which goes well beyond considerations of style, owes its conception and force to silent Soviet cinema, in particular, Pudovkin. Early on, a very quick series of three shots notes the identical triangular roofs of the dismally tan attached units in the housing project; a little later, the camera pans to impress on us again this monotonous (let’s call it) building-scape. In subsequent shots, gang activity and warfare are shown in the streets against the backdrop of this building-scape. Thus associatively arises the film’s most potent and valuable, and original, idea, conveyed purely through visual means and montage: that a major impetus for the children’s violence pitting gang against gang is their overwhelming need to individuate themselves in a setting and a society that daily tries to crush them in a crucible of undifferentiated existence. From the outside, that is, our perspective, we see the mimesis, the extent to which their confrontations make the boys mirror images of one another, gang indististinguishable from gang. But City of God enables us to “view” the matter from the inside out, from the perspective of these children’s raw feelings of sameness and nothingness. This deepens our sense of their sense of futility, of lacking past and future and therefore cramming their whole existence into the present. Violence makes them feel different and alive, and this analysis blows the cliché of gang membership proceeding from a desire “to belong” out of the heavens. City of God allows us to see what we thought we had understood in a fresh, new and, for me, utterly convincing way—and one that doesn’t slander loving black parents and families in the way that the “old” explanation does.
The film, which was written by Bráulio Mantovani, is based on a novel by Paulo Lins; its exciting use of handheld camera, sweltering color cinematography by César Charlone, and rat-tat-tat cutting by Daniel Rezende erase all sense of literary origin. City of God is a film on the edge.
It has won a host of international prizes, as best film and for Meirelles (for whatever reason, the one credited director), the cinematographer and the editor.
It is not to be missed—and no one need do so fearing the film’s level of violence. The filmmakers show very little violence, actually, but convey fully, as artists, the violent nature of the lives these kids lead. Indeed, this film pretty well nails shut the coffin in which lie all the lies about how realism requires violence in order to convey violence—the tack only of either incompetents or those who mask their own insidious love of violence behind the empty proposition, “Well, I’m only showing you the way things are.” Artists show us without showing us because they understand that to be violent themselves defeats their implicit pleas against violence. I can’t begin to list the number of recent, especially U.S. films whose vicious, violent nature this film exposes and shames by its more subtle and infinitely more powerful method. Watching City of God is not an experience to dread; it’s a work of art—and that makes it something to celebrate.