Watch it — Brazilians know Cidade de Deus, or City of God, as one of Rio de Janeiro’s most infamously dangerous neighborhoods. The movie of the same name set box office records in its home country and acquired accolades at film festivals, including the American Film Institute Audience Award for Best International Feature Film in 2002.
Though the filming production did not take place on the actual turf, the cast itself belongs to the neighborhood City of God. First-time feature director Fernando Meirelles assembled and coached a talent pool of about 200 amateur residents. Their unscripted performances impress such realism upon the viewer in part because the cast does not have to act so much as be. Cinematographer Cesar Charlone’s camera tracks their action with avid awe, without impressing upon it a certain storyboard shot. This guerilla footage leaves much of the work to editor Daniel Rezende in piecing together the film. Quick cutting and jump cutting of almost documentary material produces a bedazzling piece of social realism.
The movie never fails to entertain, often because of the sheer brutality of its subject. The story stretches over three decades of observing City of God, basing its content on Paulo Lin’s novel on the topic, adapted into a screenplay by Braulio Mantovani. Lin himself lived in the City of God project for 30 years and then spent another 10 years researching its history. Co-director Katia Lund also grew up in these favelas, slum streets. To those who did not, including the bourgeois Meirelles — Brazil’s foremost director of commercials — City of God presents a keyhole. On the film’s Web site Meirelles confesses, “[r]eading City of God was like a revelation. A revelation of another side of my own country. I believed I knew all about the social apartheid which existed in Brazil, until I read the book.”
In the ’60s the young housing project hosts the robber antics of three youths, the Tender Trio. The little boy who tags along, Lil Dice (Douglas Silva) gleefully turns thievery into murder. By the ’70s Lil Dice has changed his name to Lil Ze (Firmino da Hora), and the neat but shoddy housing project has spawned a maze of dilapidated shacks. Lil Ze’s Machiavellian instincts have led him to control most of the local drug scene.
In the ’80s a gang war enrages the favelas, after Lil Ze rapes the girlfriend of Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge), one of the few decent adults in the projects. In order to garner justice in these streets Knockout Ned must pick up the gun and the protection of a rival gang. The camera does not shy away from blood, and the death count is in the higher digits. The bodies most often belong to children. The gang lords award guns to scrawny kids who vie to fight for them. In this movie, however, to fight almost always means to be killed. One child protests his capacity to fight: “Listen man, I smoke, I snort — I’ve been begging on the street since I was just a baby. I’ve cleaned windshields at stoplights. I’ve polished shoes, I’ve robbed, I’ve killed — I ain’t no kid, no way. I’m a real man.”
During these violent decades another character emerges from the milieu. Rocket (Luis Otavio), whose brother belongs to the original Tender Trio, fumbles toward something more than selling fish or hatching crimes. Rocket manages to avoid the crossfire in his neighborhood. He shoots with the camera, and his chosen weapon eventually provides his deliverance. Rocket documents what he knows in order to escape to something better. Meirelles, on the other hand, films what he does not know in order to comprehend the very antithesis of “middle class” — something caustic and alluring. It’s something worth seeing.