Brazil’s nomination for Oscar consideration, “Cidade de Deus“ (“City of God”) is a blood-spattered, non-stop ride as much into the life of a ‘favela’ (squatter settlement) as it is into the lives of the youths who inhabit it. There is no self-pity, no soul searching, no explicitly stated social commentary in this mesmerizing and vibrant movie, what is there is a story told by a child, full of sound and fury, but signifying life instead of the nothingness you could expect.
City of God, the favela for which the movie is named, is one of Rio de Janeiro’s most notorious slums and the story is largely based on Paulo Lin’s epic book, in which he describes over 350 of the characters who move among the settlement’s walls. Our narrator is a young boy named Rocket who leads us from the late ‘60’s, when the favela comprises sun-drenched, orderly rows of pre-fab housing for those who had no where else to go, into the early ‘80’s when the City of God has become a warren of bleak apartment blocks for those who cannot escape.
As young Rocket (Luis Otavio, as a boy, Alexandre Rodrigues, as a teen) watches, the favela becomes a petri dish for conditions conducive to crime, the rule of the gun, and, eventually, full-blown turf war. The young favela sports such low grade hoods as the “Tender Trio,” comprising Rocket’s older brother, Goose (Renato de Souza), Clipper (Jefechander Suplino) and idea-man Shaggy (Jonathan Haagensen). The Trio’s antics do not extend beyond stealing fuel from the delivery trucks and, after a robbery goes awry, one boy turns to the church while another is taken firmly in hand by his father. That this incidence is the last intervention into a child’s life by a parent in the movie says much about the future of the favela.
The Tender Trio are soon replaced as the hoods in power by the malevolent Lil’ Dic (Douglas Silva, as a boy, Leandro Firmino da Hora, as a teen) and his side-kick, the forgiving Benny (Phellipe Haagensen). When Lil’ Dic (now renamed “Lil’ Zé”), decides to take over City of God as the resident drug dealer and hood baron, a series of small scale coups escalate into turf war with Carrot (Matheus Nachtergaele) and “good” man turned vigilante, Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge).
It is Rocket, dreaming of becoming a photographer, who fittingly serves as our Virgil, leading us through a world which no outsiders dare enter. The other inhabitants of this favela may be living their own quiet lives, however Rocket is on the periphery of the action and lives through the turf wars in a deeply personal way. From his first crush (Alice Braga) to his first camera, Rocket shares experiences both touching and humorous (his charmingly inept attempts at becoming a hood are not to be missed) as well as his losses.
Although the bulk of the movie narrates the all-out turf wars between two rival drug dealers, the story is deliberately told with the energy, liveliness and digressions of a child’s tale, somehow managing to leave us hope amongst the corpses as the credits roll.
Parents should know that this movie contains non-stop violence and frequent deaths, including the murders of main characters. In this 130-minute long film, there are only a handful of scenes where the characters are safe from peril and the audience can relax with them. There are explicit references to sexual intercourse and a non explicit but deeply disturbing rape scene which should not be viewed by children.
Families should discuss the evolution of the characters from children into adults. When the boy nicknamed “Steak & Fries” (Darlan Cunha) argues to a crowd of drug dealers that because he has smoked, snorted, killed and robbed, he is a man, the crowd bawls with laughter. It does not matter that the boy, perhaps 10 years old, is only slightly younger than these teenagers. What, besides chronology, does make someone an adult? What choices does Knockout Ned make that turn him from a local hero to just another gangster?
The rise of a younger generation of hoods in the form of the gun-toting pre-teens known as “the Runts” presents us with the specter of never-ending violence. What is the future of the favela at the end of the movie? What could stop the vicious circle? What decision does Rocket make about his photographs at the end? Is this what you would have done?
Where the odd, little-kids-turned-mobsters flick “Bugsy Malone“ (1976) meets the wanton destruction of “Scarface” (1983), “City of God” touches on the theme of children becoming killers in the never ending spiral of retribution. “Boyz in the Hood” (1991) did a powerful job at capturing another young man on the cusp of gang warfare. The rule of children without mercy is much in evidence in the “Lord of the Flies” (1963, 1990). Families who enjoy this movie should not miss the less bloody but beautifully moving “Central Station” (1998).