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City of God (Cidade de Deus)

dir: Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund
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What a fantastic, fiery, raucous flick. Brazilian cinema has come into its own and is now its own exportable genre because of City of God. I’m sure they were making films for decades before this, but this flick blew a lot of people away and made them start noticing a great kind of cinema from a previously unheard region.

Since then, the Brazilian flicks that have been appearing at my local arthouse cinema and on the shelves of my local vid store are all united by common threads: they’re based on true stories, they centre around crime and poverty, and they’re about larger than life characters living in cities so extreme as to almost seem like science fiction. But they exist. They’re real. The slum called City of God, or Cidade de Deus in their native Portuguese tongue, is a real place. They didn’t have to build sets, hire extras and dress them in costumes, or make anything up.

Of course this isn’t a documentary, don’t get me wrong. But it’s a pretty real film about a real life lived by millions in the most prosperous country in Latin America.

The majority of the actors in the flick are people who grew up in these government-created slums they call favelas. I guess it probably doesn’t seem as freaky to them to have eight year olds running around with guns killing people and running the drug trade. It does to me. It makes you marvel at the differences in lives lived according to geography.

For all the social commentary and significance you could read into the enterprise, and assume would heavy-handedly have to be there, this isn’t that kind of flick. It has a fast-paced narrative covering three decades in the lives of many of the denizens of the City of God, seen through the eyes of one guy who lived through it all.

Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), or Buscape as they actually call him, isn’t one of the players in the violent intrigues that constitute everyday life in the slum, he’s only an observer. It’s intimated early on that he’ll become a photographer later in life, if he only manages to survive. Well, of course he survives, otherwise the guy wouldn’t have grown up to write the novel this flick is based on (author Paolo Lins).

Buscape is a decent enough kid who doesn’t directly get involved in the constant, ongoing, murderous shenanigans that occur around him, he just watches it. It’s tempting to assume that it’s probably not true, in the same way you can’t really watch Goodfellas without assuming that Henry Hill lied about his involvement in plenty of murders and crimes because it made him look more sympathetic. And kept him out of jail, at least for a while.

There’s even a scene where Buscape plans to commit some crimes only to be thwarted by happenstance and his own kind-hearted nature, which, though funny, smacks of soft-soaping and the gentlest of spin. But I hardly care about that. You can make the case that the reason why Buscape survives (despite the constant chances there were where his life could have ended deliberately or through chaos) is because he aspires to something more out of his life than gunning down other children over pieces of slum turf.

He is, after all, a pretty intelligent, but simple guy. For the majority of the film, he only really wants three things: to smoke a little dope, to pop his cherry with a girl called Angelica (Alice Braga), and to not get shot in the face. But his friends and fellow slum dwellers are of a very different calibre entirely.

Squillions of people live in Cidade de Deus, so it’s understandable that they’ve all got a story, but there isn’t enough time to give them each fifteen minutes. So the film sails through multiple characters with their own little stories, not with an eye to creating a whole host of well-rounded characters, but to give a sense of the wildness of life in the favelas; its cheapness, how easily life can be snuffed out, its relentless energy as well.

It’s an energy that permeates the film, giving even its more gruesome passages a jagged and almost comic reality that simultaneously draws us in and keeps us at a safe distance. We’re never going to daydream about how wonderful it would have been to grow up there, but there’s more than enough coming through in the film to give us the pulse and feel of the times.

So countless characters are introduced, with names that scream of mistranslation, but that are funny all the same: Stringy, Shaggy, Melonhead, Knockout Ted, Carrot, Tuba, Goose and my favourite, Steak and Fries. What Steak and Fries (Darlan Cunha) lacks in characterisation and screen time he more than makes up for by having a stupid name. A name (Fille Com Fritas) which doesn’t seem to have been a deliberate mistranslation, unlike the other ones, on the part of the subtitle monkeys over at the formerly named Weinstein Company known as Miramax. Ah, Miramax, we hardly knew ye.

Not to ignore something crucial, it is a hellishly violent film. I guess there aren’t any other ways such a flick about such a place could be made. The poverty in Brazil is staggering. There’s about 45 million people living in abject poverty, most of whom are starving. Commensurate with that, the crime and violence are at staggering levels too. There’s a documentary on the region 4 DVD release has interviews with criminals from the favelas, residents, the police and the police chief.

If anything, the documentary, calculated to give the film more credibility, is more insane and unbelievable than the film. The relationship between criminal gangs, who walk around as a military force, the common folk and the cops, who are more a security force intended to keep the animals in the favelas and out of the nicer areas of the city, is breathtaking. It’s simply staggering that such an existence persists in this day and age.

Of all the lunatic criminals who pervade the slum, Lil’ Ze (Leandro Firmino), is the worst of them all. We see him as a kid of less than ten years of age butchering a bunch of people just for laughs. Not for money, or revenge, but just for laughs. Not that I want to be deliberately confusing, but when we’re first introduced to the character, he’s called Lil’ Dice by the subtitles, with the other characters calling him Dadinho. Later on, when a shaman type guy performs a ceremony on him, the shaman changes his name to Ze Pequeno, which the subtitles calling him Lil’ Ze. I know, I know, I’m confused myself, and I’m only making matters worse.

Lil’ Ze, like all the favela’s criminals, starts off extremely young and only keeps going up in the criminal world as, surprisingly enough, being a violent psychopath is somehow beneficial to his chosen profession. I’d have thought a steady diet of porridge and prayer would have done better for him, but what do I know? Nothing, since I’m not the one running a drug empire and controlling entire suburbs of a modern city.

With his psychopathy as his key asset, he also has help in the form of a brainy best friend who helps him keep the organisation together. There’s always got to be the brains and the brawn in any relationship. The man (or woman) behind the man (or woman). Look at the Clintons, as an example. I suspect the brains behind that presidency probably wasn’t the one getting their pole waxed by interns in the Oval Office.

Not that there’s anything wrong with getting your pole waxed in the White House, or any other house, for that matter.

It’s implied early on that Lil’ Ze biggest problem is that, being quite painful to the eyes, he can’t get any pole waxage without either paying for it or resorting to rape. This man of the people’s problem is that he can’t get laid. The film doesn’t make the excuse that he was created by the conditions in Cidade de Deus; it makes the clearer point that a psychopath like Lil’ Ze thrives and prospers in such an environment, making the lives of the other favela dwellers even nastier.

Lil’ Ze’s best friend Benny (Phellipe Haagensen), is everything that Lil’ Ze is not. He’s intelligent, handsome, and well-loved even as the right hand man of a deranged lunatic. Benny thrives in the criminal world, moderating Lil’ Ze’s actions with strategic and political thinking, and is comfortable in the ‘straight’ world with those from outside the favelas, coming from a world of means. In other words, middle-class people who won’t kill you as a joke. Pretty fucking funny punchline.

He’s also good friends with Buscape, who lives in perpetual fear of Lil’ Ze.

As Lil’ Ze’s grip on Cidade de Deus grows, so does his ambition. He genuinely starts to see himself as a benevolent overlord who looks after the denizens of the areas of the suburb that he controls. He punishes other crims committing crimes on his loyal subjects, no matter what their age. A gang of kids even younger than the ones in his gang, the Runts, who are all below ten years of age, need to be put in place. Who better to brutalise and murder kids than another kid? Examples must be made, lest the kids in kindergarten get too uppity.

As the film goes on, various people close or distant to Buscape meet their fates or meet their makers, all told with the relentless momentum of a story too insane to be untrue. But Buscape is there to chronicle everything that goes on, leading up to a gang war in the favelas so extreme that even the police want nothing to do with the conflict.

Exceptionally well made, surprisingly well acted by mostly non-professional actors, upbeat and terrifying at the same time, engrossing and gross, hopeful and insane. It’s better than any of the other flicks people have idiotically used as comparison points (calling it a Brazilian Goodfellas is insulting to both films, and inaccurate. It’s also better than Goodfellas).

Maybe it’s comparable to other Brazilian flicks that I’m yet to see, but there’s nothing out there which really comes close. It’s a triumph for all the people involved, and the least of its achievements is that it has pushed the plight of Brazil’s unseen and unheard into the light, and splashed Brazil’s cinema onto the map for the rest of us to get a gander. Since then I’ve gotten to watch City of Men, Carandiru and Almost Brothers, all excellent films depicting incredible lives which I would have never gotten to see if it weren’t for this here flick.

I’m sure Fernando Meirelles, who has subsequently made a further mark internationally with The Constant Gardener, proving he’s not a one trick pony, has got plenty more to contribute to world cinema.

A truly amazing film.

10 times I’m certain every gang related film that comes out for the next twenty years is going to be claiming in its promotional material “In the tradition of City of God…”

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“I smoke, I snort, I've robbed, I've killed... I'm a man.” – ten year old Steak-and-Fries, City of God.

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