Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund’s City of God (2002) has been compared to Goodfellas since both films deal with criminal organizations, but the crimes committed in the Brazilian film are much more chaotic, and in a way much more horrible. In fact, while Martin Scorsese’s crime masterpiece showed how the Italian-American mob handled crime like a business, City of God illustrates how crime in the impoverished favelas of the beautiful Rio de Janeiro is not “organized” so much as loosely controlled chaos. It is a scattering look at the underbelly of paradise, and leaves you shaken upon first viewing.
Having lived in South America for quite a few years in the mid-90s, I had a rough idea of what favelas look like, but was lucky to have only seen them from afar. I never saw violence remotely resembling what is depicted in the film, but I have seen levels of poverty that make me grateful to live anywhere in Canada. If you think your city is bad because it’s too small or polluted, then be grateful it is not overrun by teenagers armed with automatic weapons and a corrupt police force that is only concerned with keeping its public image intact. I was reminded of all this upon viewing City of God in 2006 while doing my university studies in Sherbrooke, a city that must truly look like paradise for many of the characters in the film.
Set in the City of God suburb and spread from the 1960s to the early 1980s, the story follows several characters as they either try to stay alive, or try to kill lots of people for control of a few city blocks. The messed up part is just about all of these characters are either teenagers or very young children, hence when they get their hands on guns they use them as if they were toys. You would not think a little kid with a nickname like Li’l Dice (Douglas Silva) could be a monster, but during a heist where he is supposed to be just the lookout he decides to go inside and gun down everyone with a big smile on his face.
Once he gets past puberty he decides to rename himself Li’l Zé (Leandro Firmino da Hora) and establishes a drug empire by killing anyone who gets in his way. A professional gangster would focus on making money with a minimum amount of violence in order to avoid getting attention from cops or the press. Or, you know, because killing people is a bad thing. But since no one ever told Zé or anyone living in the favelas these things he doesn’t care who he shoots or rapes in his war against a rival drug kingpin and takes a great deal of pleasure in the violence.
As the years go by there is so much chaos and disorder no one remembers why the gang war started in the first place. All they care about is winning even if that means enlisting young kids nicknamed “The Runts” into their ranks. Of course there are a few people who want to either leave town or get a normal job, or as close to normal as it gets in that world. Rocket (Alexandre Rogrigue), who serves as the film’s narrator and observer, has a knack for photography, which could lead to a brighter future at a newspaper. Given how the violence is escalating he might be the only one able to get photos inside the City of God, which at this point would be the equivalent of being a war photographer.
The use of mostly non-professional actors, many of whom actually came from that world, adds an unsettling realism to the movie. There are no flashy explosions, no fancy editing for added excitement, or big-screen movie stars hogging the spotlight. This is just an unfiltered look at the griminess that lies beneath the postcard image of Brazil, and makes you wonder, is anyone doing anything to improve the situation? Also, if this is the City of God, what does the Devil’s City look like?