City of God
Cidade de Deus
review by Laura Bushell, 17 January 2003

The latest dazzling achievement to emerge from Latin American, City of God (Cidade de Deus) spans three decades of gang warfare in the favelas outside Rio de Janiero, telling its story with such ferocious energy itís hard to look a Hollywood film in the eye for a long time afterwards. Like the Mexican Amores Perros before it, City of God fills its epic time-scale with the impassioned drama and dynamic fast-paced visuals that have become the trademark of the so-called Latin American renaissance and has drawn various comparisons with auteurs such as Tarantino and Scorsese. Still, taking Paolo Linsí source novel about real life in the favelas, director Fernando Meirelles brilliantly renders both the harsh reality of the social situation and the vibrant imagery it affords in his own distinct style.

For a decade beginning in 1986, writer Lins documented the violent drug trade that was continuing to boom within the City of God and turned this potent source material into a bestselling novel. Meirellesí elliptical film begins close to the end of the story, when its narrator Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues) is caught in the midst of a shot-out between the cityís drug-dealing gangs and the police. Flashback to the sixties, where Rocket is eleven years old and living amongst groups of small-time crooks in the favelas, friends with many of the cityís children who will later become embroiled in the drugs war that engulfs the favela. One amateur gang carries out a blundered robbery at a brothel and later disbands, having to go on the run after one of their members is killed. A decade later and Liíl Ze (formerly Liíl Dice, a member of that gang) makes moves to take over most of the drug dealing in the City of God, and in a grisly flashback we discover his brutal role in the brothel robbery when he was just a child.

Itís an understatement to say that Liíl Ze (Leandro Firmino da Hora) has aggression issues but, armed as he is with a plethora of weapons and minions willing to obey him, itís hard to argue. Only his close friend and less psychopathic hood Bene (Phellipe Haagensen) is able to reason with him. Meanwhile, as the narrative loops and weaves around itself, as Rocket comes of age he becomes a photographer for a local newspaper, bringing them graphic images from inside the favelas that were formerly no-go areas for their reporters. Just as his first set of photographs are published in the newspaper, Rocket fears for his safety in the favela, only to be hired as a virtual celebrity photographer by Liíl Ze, desperate for notoriety and the prestige of making the cover of the newspaper. And so itís partly through Rocketís lens that the filmís climatic, violent scenes, come to a head. But as the films simultaneously funny yet terrifying conclusion suggests, this is by no means the end of the circle of violence in the City of God.

Having already generated a reputation for violence, itís surprising to see how City of God deals with the grisly minutiae of its killings in quite an oblique way. Thereís an undeniably horrific scene of infanticide, but this made so largely because of the distress on screen, likewise for a brutal rape scene later on where we can only hear whatís going on, which is equally as disturbing. Unlike the excess viscera of the violence in Scorseseís Goodfellas or Tarantinoís Pulp Fiction, to which his work has bore comparison, Meirelles spares the gore for some keys scenes and gives the rest a dose of bravura; one shoot-out is memorably stylised as it takes place under the strobe lights of a packed nightclub, jerking, jolting and dying to the beat of the music. Equally, the violence is tempered with humour and by the humane performances of the largely non-professionals cast: two hundred local kids who were auditioned and trained on site.

Electrifying as it is to watch, City of God still has its links to the real situation facing the disenfranchised members of the Brazilian underclass. Their anger and desperation to define themselves is what pushes the film forward with such force and raw energy, and what makes it simultaneously as frightening as it is entertaining. Part social commentary, part coming-of-age tale and part flashy filmmaking, City of God has all the hallmarks of top notch filmmaking. And Meirelles has the skill and insight to surpass comparisons with great auteurs and become one himself.

Directed by:
Xavier Koller

Starring:
Kiefer Sutherland,
Marcus Thomas
Daryl Hannah
Melinda Dillon
Russell Means
Molly Ringwald
Pete Postlethwaite

Written by:
James Redford

Rated:
R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult
guardian.

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