Directed by: Fernando Meirelles & Kátia Lund
Written by: Bráulio Mantovani
Starring: Alexandre Rodrigues, Leandro Firmino da Hora, Jonathan Haagensen, Phellipe Haagensen
Authenticity becomes paramount to telling stories of lives we have never seen. It’s easy for anyone to hop into an environment and purport to tell a story of the people there, but showing the true circumstances and reality of these lives can create such a rewarding and educational experience for the audience. Gritty, brutal, and unapologetic, City of God invites us into a Rio favela to show what it looks like to enter a world dominated by violence.
Growing up his entire life in a favela called Cidade de Deus, Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues) has no interest in the crime and drug trade, unlike his brother, and wants to become a photographer. As he attempts to escape this dangerous environment, he details the rise of the slum lords and what life looks like in one of the most impoverished areas of Brazil.
Festivals galore and excellent futbol, Brazil has built a worldwide reputation for being a country of festivity, but it also harbors some of the most dangerous housing situations as well. City of God allows us to look at the experience of one person to paint a portrait of a world many may not be aware of and does so in a blistering and unapologetic manner. As described in the film, reporters cannot safely get into these favelas to document what occurs and the police have given up on having any order. All of it becomes dominated by whoever has the most amount of guns and money. The harrowing nature of this story appears in the reality of these neighborhoods being run by young people who do not have their emotions in check and allow their impulses to dominate their decision making. It makes each moment unpredictable, as alliances can break from one negative exchange or a glaring glance.
While being entrenched in this favela for the entire film, we follow someone not keen to get involved with this dangerous trade. He remains on the fringes most of the time and mostly represents someone trying to escape his circumstances and build a better life. This hopeful achievement cannot happen for everyone, as the story indicates but Rocket will try his very best. The story gets told with Rocket serving as the narrator and an objective voice telling us the story of what occurred with the particular rise and fall of Li’l Zé (Leandro Firmino da Hora). As evil and demented as anyone can get, this guy enjoyed killing people at a young age and has no qualms advancing himself and his crew through this method. Li’l Zé’s journey carries plenty of intrigue because of his egotistical style of operating his gang. Rocket’s presence in the favela left me at an uncomfortable unease for the entire feature because of the unpredictability of Li’l Zé and what will occur when everyone discovers the gangs will become the ticket for Rocket to escape this hell.
The guerilla-style of filming utilized in this feature makes it feel like a documentary in moments as everything feels so real. The camera movement is hectic, especially when the action begins but it all culminates to the intentional and methodical approach of how this film got made. The filmmakers entered an actual favela to film their shots and used mostly non-actors to portray the characters because of the authenticity that comes with it. Other films have been hit or miss with non-actors but it works well in City of God because of the grittiness of the story and how easy it becomes to buy the narrative being put out by the film. While you may get dizzy at times from the camera movements, it certainly drags you into this space and puts you right in those critical moments. This geographical area has tremendous heat and terrible infrastructure, so it shows these characters drenched in sweat at all times. Some of them may not have showered in days because of their living conditions.
Much like many of the housing projects in poverty-stricken cities in the United States, the favelas in the most flattering light were created to give low-income folks the opportunity to live somewhere. However, City of God tells the real story just like in this country where these places get set up to fail and allow crime to take over. It shows the reality of a government trying to ship off people away from the desirable cities to rot away without any resources. In this favela, it turns into the Wild West where whoever has the gun makes the rules and dictates terms of how everything will operate. It shows the disservice done to the people living in these developments and how evil the entire operation proves to be.
As invigorating as it is damning, City of God sheds light on the living conditions of favelas in Rio while also showing the story of a young man trying to break out of it. The film manages to shift the spotlight to several characters within the runtime and gives them a moment of growth or reckoning. A tremendous balancing act and one done in order to assure we build an emotional attachment to them just as their most painful moments arrive. This film feels vital and incredibly real from the way it gets shot to the actors’ utilization to bring this story to life. The narrative builds a story following how these kids take on this rugged lifestyle along with the cycle perpetuating this violence. A harrowing story with plenty of touching moments to reconnect you with the humanity of it all. Certainly one of Brazil’s greatest cinematic exports and one to continually appreciate.