Based on the 1997 novel by Paulo Lins, City of God (2002) tells the tale of the lives of ordinary and extraordinary people growing and living in a failed Brazilian housing project on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. In 1982, these slums (favelas in the local language) were the backdrop for some of Brazil’s most fierce and bloody gang wars. In a reflection of slum life the world over, the subjects and objects of these conflicts were money and power. Gangs fought to the death to control their patches and dragged the whole of the housing project, the ironically named City of God, into the fray.
One of the residents, Buscapé (Alexandre Rodrigues) has a camera and a dream – to escape the place that has killed or beaten so many of his friends. So far, so schmaltzy, you may think. Well, if there’s one thing this film isn’t, it’s sentimental. Life in the slums is hard. It’s really hard. Director Fernando Meirelles has been quoted as saying that if he had known in advance what shooting in a Rio favela was like, he’d never have taken it on. If further context were needed, he was shooting in a slum area considered by locals to be a lot less dangerous than the real City of God.
The idea was originally to have the majority of the cast taken from the slums themselves or to be cast from complete unknowns. Apart from the untimely rise to fame of actor Matheus Nachtergaele (who plays Sandro Cenauro – ‘carrot’) and the inclusion of Samba star Seu Jorge (‘Knockout Ned’) it works well. The majority of the actors were recruited directly from the slums and Rodrigues himself actually hails from the eponymous slum. This could so easily been a foolish move, a vanity project for a director with a social conscience and a fat wallet to wave at the poor. Happily, it turns out to be neither.
The characterizations are spot-on and the performances directors Meirelles and Kátia Lund coax out of these unknowns is little short of incredible. One could argue that as they have lived life it would be easy to portray it but that would cheapen the achievement. The enthusiasm and zest for their portrayals goes far beyond chance or coaching and puts many ‘proper’ actors to shame. Perhaps a story from the early 1980s may not seem relevant but little changes in slum life and all the prime motivators exist now as they did then. It’s this experience that gives the characters such depth – and allows them to portray such extremes of love and hatred.
Like all gangster movies, drugs, sex, guns and violence abound and it probably isn’t a film to settle in and watch with the kids. In the 1980s it was all about drugs. Gangs fought for control over supply and an over turf. Young men grew up in gang culture and lived and died by it. It was life. Unlike other gangster flicks, there is no secret handshake, no special code – you kill or get killed. Simple. The saddest thread in the film is the sub-plot following ‘The Runts’ – These are a gang of kids of six or seven years old and up – unlike the men of the grown-up gangs who might be all of 20. History will inevitably repeat itself and that certainty is heartbreaking. Surprisingly, among the melée, there is room for humour and even love. Several stories intertwine, exploring the most basic and urgent of human emotions, all the while painted against an backdrop of almost unbelievable brutality.
César Charlone was likely chosen as cinematographer for his previous work on documentaries. The brief appeared to be to create a sense of reality or a grainy, cinéma vérité style of shooting and he pulled it off admirably. You could be forgiven for forgetting you’re watching a film and find yourself so immersed, it’s like real life playing out before your eyes. Which, of course, it is. The soundtrack adds to the Brazilian flavour, enhancing rather than dominating and splashing another layer onto this well-crafted piece.
Never flippant and surprisingly touching in places, Cidade de Deus is a violent, unpleasant and often stark portrait of what life as a young gangster is like. There are no old or retired gangsters, just dead ones. Actually, remember what I said about not settling down with the kids to watch it? Well, perhaps you should. I can think of no better way to teach them how life is for some other people.
130 mins. In Portuguese.