City of God has been referred to by some movie critics as the Brazilian GoodFellas. It’s not a bad comparison.
Like GoodFellas, there’s a voice-over from the main character, Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), that keeps the story moving. And one of the lesser characters here, like Spider in GoodFellas, gets shot in the foot. But the chaos, the wanton violence and the sense of despair are more reminiscent of Mean Streets, Martin Scorsese’s 1973 breakout gangster film.
Based on the semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by Paulo Lins (who grew up in Cidade de Deus—the housing project from which the book and movie took their title), this is a story of life in one of the most violent slums on the fringes of Rio de Janeiro. What we find here is a Brazil far removed from Carnival and the beaches of Ipanema. While some of the women are, indeed, tall and tan and lovely and while the movie’s recurring musical themes echo the sambas and bossa nova beats that define the carefree Brazil of travel agents, City of God offers a gritty and harrowing look at life in the favelas.
Those notorious shantytowns have spawned some of Brazil’s most violent street gangs and kingpins and were the killing fields for a bloody drug war in the 1980s that is captured in the brutal, final scenes of the movie.
A reviewer writing in the London Guardian after Lins’ novel had been translated and published in English in 2006 raved about the book, but described it as a “postcard from hell.”
Director Fernando Meirelles, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his work here, managed to turn that sprawling, 496-page novel into a fast-paced underworld saga about the young (some of the characters are nine- and ten-year-old street urchins), violent and disenfranchised who populate the underbelly of Brazilian society.
“I smoke, I snort, I’ve killed and robbed . . . I’m a man,” says a teenaged wannabe gang member named “Steak & Fries” (Darlan Cunha) as he petitions for admission into one of the drug crews that run the slum.
The hand-held camera work of cinematographer Cesar Charlone helps create a documentary feel to the movie. This is further enhanced by Meirelles’ decision to recruit more than 100 boys and young men from the slums of Rio as his cast. Few of the actors had any film experience. They were put into a theater group set up by the director about a year before he began shooting the film.
In an interview published online shortly after the film was released, Meirelles, who was born and raised middle class in São Paulo and studied architecture in college, said he became involved in the lives of his young actors—sometimes feeding and housing them, other times settling disputes that had nothing to do with the movie. To his credit, the director didn’t hesitate to tap into and use the insights and backgrounds of his troupe as he was filming.
Prior to a scene depicting one of the big gang confrontations, for example, one of the actors playing a minor character asked the director if they were going to pray before going into battle. This, he said, was what they used to do when he was a gang member. Meirelles instructed the actor to lead the others in prayer, and filmed the unscripted scene.
The movie is told in three parts—chapters, if you will—tracing the housing project known as Cidade de Deus from its sun-baked inception in the 1960s through the gloom, doom and oppressive overcrowding that had come to define the area by the 1980s.
Rocket, a preteen when the story begins, is one of the few characters who makes it out of the ghetto, using his talent as a photographer to chronicle the turmoil around him and win the chance to work for a newspaper.
As the narrator, he provides a straightforward account of the events that shape life in the favela, starting with the gritty, Robin Hood-like tale of the Tender Trio (who rob and then share their booty with the poor) and ending with the rise and fall of Li’l Ze (Leandro Firmino da Hora), the psychopathic drug kingpin and one of the chief protagonists in the gang war.
Li’l Ze starts out as Li’l Dice, changing his name as he grows both physically and in stature within the criminal underworld.
Along the way, cocaine replaces marijuana as the drug of choice for those both using and selling. Coke offers a bigger kick and more power—as does the ever-expanding arsenal of guns used by the teen and preteen gangsters.
Li’l Dice’s fascination with violence surfaces early in life when he is assigned the job as lookout while the Tender Trio rob a motel/brothel. He’s told to fire a warning shot if the police show up.
Angry at not being included in the actual heist, he fires the shot even though there are no cops. Then after the Tender Trio scatter, Li’l Dice walks into the motel and starts blowing people away. He keeps shooting through a series of confrontations and drug wars, including a battle with a group of ambitious nine- and ten-year-old junior gangsters called the Runts.
These are the Dead End Kids, but with a nasty, totally amoral violent streak. But they are just part of life, along with corrupt cops, greed, treachery and rape, in the City of God.
And things have only gotten worse since the writing of the book the film was based on, according to its author.
“The world of the favela today is much more cruel than when I was growing up there or even as I show it in my book,” Lins said in a 2004 interview. “If I were to write about the way things are today, I would start the book with a pile of rubber tires, gasoline and someone being burned alive.”
Mean streets, indeed.
HIT: The frantic pace and relentless violence drive home the promotional tagline that so accurately described the film: “Fight and you’ll never survive. . . . Run and you’ll never escape.”
MISS: This is a general complaint about gangster movies with subtitles, and there’s really nothing that can be done about it. In fact, it probably applies to any movie with subtitles. But we often miss the subtle things that can define or refine a foreign film. For example, nicknames are crucial to the characters, but most get lost in the translation here. The character called Knockout Ned (who came up with that?) is called Mane Galinha in the original. It translates as “Chicken Mane” and refers to the character’s penchant for stealing chickens as a boy and indirectly relates to the opening scene in the movie. But it was decided that “chicken” has the connotation of cowardice in English, so the name was changed in the subtitles. L’il Dice is another nickname that has no connection to the original. The character has nothing at all to do with dice. Go figure.
REALITY CHECK: While the movie was filmed in several favelas around Rio, it was not shot in the Cidade de Deus housing project because it was considered too dangerous to film there.
BEST LINE: “To be a real hood, you need more than just a gun, you need ideas,” says Rocket in a voice-over early in the film.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “The latest and one of the most powerful in a recent spate of movies that remind us that the civilized society we take for granted is actually a luxury . . . law and order are as scarce on these means streets (just minutes away from one of the world’s most glorious beaches) as they are in the slums of 1860s Manhattan depicted in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York.”—Stephen Holden, New York Times
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Seu Jorge, who plays reluctant gang leader and hero Knockout Ned, is a popular samba-soul singer in Brazil.
BODY COUNT: Forty-two. Everyone’s got a gun and is ready to use it.
VIOLENCE LEVEL: Among the highest of any movie on our list.
IF YOU LIKED THIS, YOU’LL LIKE: City of Men, a sequel produced by Meirelles in 2007. The sequel followed a highly acclaimed television series in Brazil of the same name that Meirelles put together after the success of City of God.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]
George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and author of several books, including “Blood and Honor” which Jimmy Breslin called “the best gangster book ever written.”
Glen Macnow was a writer for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Detroit Free Press.” He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia.
George and Glen have co-authored “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.”