City of God (Cidade de Deus) – Fernando Mierelles and Katia Lund (2002)
You know those films that everyone is always talking about but you’ve never seen it? And they say “What? You’ve never seen ____? You need to watch it, it’s so good” and you’re all “Yeah I will, it’s on my list!” Well that’s been me with City of God for like the past five years. I never intended to put it off this long, especially since I often hear it compared to Goodfellas used to be my favourite film, but other films just shouted at me and until now, I had nothing pushing me to watch it. But I’ve never seen a Brazilian film so this was the perfect opportunity to kill two birds with one stone.
The film is an adaptation of Paulo Lins’s novel of the same name, which was based on real events from the area, and classed as semi-autobiographical. For those who haven’t seen it, the film explores an impoverished area or ‘favela’ in Rio de Janerio named ‘Cidade de Deus.’ The area is run by violent ‘hoodlums’ and who either raid local businesses or deal drugs, the latter of which is seen as the more lucrative option. The gangs mostly pay off the police as to not get involved in their dealings unless necessary.
Though there are quite an overwhelming amount of characters, we are somewhat centred with ‘Rocket’, a character Paulo Lin based on himself, who gives the voice over helping us understand the history of the City of God. Many observe that the city itself is the true, main character, as it is the sole focus of the story, with all other characters existing in relation only to the area itself. For me, Rocket was pretty important to the story not just as a narrator but as one of the only ‘normal’ people (besides Benny) in the city. He likes photography and, despite his older brother playing a part in a key hoodlum movement, is mainly concerned with losing his virginity. His attempts to seduce Angelica on their trips to the beach are somewhat a breath of fresh air from the claustrophobia and constant violence of the the city. (Rocket below).
The area is infested with a lot of pretty evil characters, most notably Lil’ Ze who is seen, at a young age (then Lil Dice) violently murdering innocent civilians in a motel out of the blue, without motivation. He goes on to intimidate, murder, threaten and rape members of that community, which would have been pretty heavy viewing if it weren’t for light relief in the form of Rocket and Lil ze’s sidekick/voice of reason – Benny (below, left).
It’s not just the quantity of characters that is overwhelming in this film, but the sheer amount of violence throughout it. The film’s pace is somewhat disorienting as it pans from one character’s story to another in a heartbeat, but no matter where you look there are guns being shot, drugs being sold and beatings taking place. All tap into the social issues rife in Rio’s poorer communities, something that is clearly not being counteracted or even dealt with, evident in a confrontation between the heavily armed gang and police, in which they climb back in the car declaring “let them kill each other”, which is exactly what they end up doing.
Although I don’t have the time now, hopefully I will get the chance to re-watch City of God when I am less tired so I can appreciate it properly. It’s fast pace and wealth of characters undoubtedly overwhelmed me, which is not to say that they are a bad thing, but rather that if I’d known it required so much energy I’d have saved it for when I had some. I don’t doubt that next time, knowing what I’m going into I’ll appreciate it for the dizzy, explosive experience that it is.