January 2003
City of God (Cidade de Deus)

Reviewed by Niija Kuykendall

City of God: (Cidade de Deus)
Director: Fernando Meirelles
Co-Director: Katia Lund
Distributor: Miramax
Story: Paulo Lin
Screenwriter: Braulio Mantovani
Producers: Andrea Barata Ribeiro, Mauricio Andrade Ramos
Editor: Daniel Rezende
Director of Photography: Cesar Charlone
Language: In Portuguese with English subtitles
Cast: Alexandre Rodrigues, Leandro Firmino da Hora, Philipe Haagensen, Douglas Silva, Matheus Nachtergaele, Seu Jorge, Roberta Rodriguez Silva

City of God is a heady experience of violence, notoriety and damn good storytelling. Director Fernando Meirelles uses his well-learned craft of filmmaking to show the outside world an insider birdís eye view of Cidade de Deus, or City of God, one of Brazilís most infamous and dangerous favelas, housing projects for the displaced poor located on the outskirts of major cities. The film is an adaptation of the Paulo Lin novel based on the authorís experiences growing up in the Cidade de Deus.

Rocket, the young aspiring photographer and a product of City of God, is our narrator but the protagonist of the film is distinctively the infamous city itself. Spanning three decades, starting in the sixties, Rocket guides us through the various personalities and dramas of a bone-chillingly cold, frightening but very human space. In our relatively safe theater chairs we watch as children must navigate through poverty, drugs and murder to route a path for survival. Using such tools as split screen, voiceover narrative and freeze-frame, the true story of the bloody war between two drug lords is told with a bombasticity that makes the viewer alternately want to cringe but avidly watch. We are horrified yet fascinated by the depths of hell that is called home by millions of Brazilís citizens.

We are alongside Rocket as he photographs his way through adolescence, neutral voyeurs of numerous crime scenes and horror stories. The slick, fast-paced editing of the work keeps us on the peripheral of the reality of wasted lives and children killing children - literally babies killing babies - just as Rocketís camera seems to protect him and ultimately saves him from the same death that befalls many of his childhood mates. That same frenetic filmmaking that perfectly portrays the hyperactive violence of the city also protects the viewer from truly processing the oppressive socio-economic results of living in the Brazilian ghetto. The relief of the closing credits finally sets in and shock precedes thought.

The amazingly skilled direction and editing could also be this Oscar contenderís downfall as it is extremely disjointed and treats the viewers as if we all have attention deficit disorder. Meirelles also takes pains to completely submerge us into the life of the main character, Cidade de Deus, and does not complete too many in depth character studies of the fascinating humans that made the favela a mixture of home and hell which might have pushed the work up a notch in its already strong power level. On the other hand, to allow the viewers to get too attached to any one character might have been cruel on behalf of the director as most of the characters are physically and/or emotionally harmed in some brutally sadistic way throughout the film. Regardless of the chaotic filmmaking, the viewer is held in place by the knowledge that this story is real. Not only are the events of the film based on true events, the character of Rocket being based on Paulo Lin, but the amazing performances of each actor and actress stems from a place other than training and interest in fame as each performer is an unknown actually cast from the City of God and neighboring Ďhoods. The viewer can never forget that these characters are real, the violence is real, the horror is real and the humanity is real, not only in Brazil but also worldwide.