To be a real hood, you need more than just a gun. You need ideas.
—Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), City of God
I am in a war. The difference is that I go home every day.
—Police Captain Pimentel, “News From a Personal War”
All I know is that I want to have a family. I want a new life.
—Zinho, 10-year-old delinquent, “News From a Personal War”
“I don’t think about doing bad things to people. I don’t think about being mean to people. I think about living my life.” At the time he is interviewed for Kátia Lund and João Moreira Salles’ “News From a Personal War” (filmed in 1997 and 1998), Adriano is a 29-year-old drug dealer in Rio de Janiero. The hour-long documentary, included on Miramax’s DVD release of Cidade de Deus (City of God), closes with a series of notations, including the fact that Adriano was incarcerated, escaped, and was murdered after filming. His sad, violent end is much like that of many “hoodlums” living in the projects known as the “Cidade de Deus.” The sheer ordinariness of such horror is at the sensational, poignant, and frightening center of Fernando Meirelles’ incredible movie.
Adapted by Bráulio Mantovani from Paolo Lins’ 700-page novel, Cidade draws from the documentary and related real life stories (it also lists Kátia Lund as co-director, as she provided crucial information, sources, and narrative formulations). “One person dies every half hour in Rio de Janiero,” says the documentary’s narrator, “90% by large caliber guns.” While “News From a Personal War” considers the means to those deaths, by way of interviews with armored cops, masked dealers, writer Paulo Lins, and dwellers (community members trying to survive assaults committed by cops and dealers), it also includes a brief history lesson (“The Beginning, 1950-1980”; “When it became lucrative,” says Lin, “it became violent”), as well as commentary underlining the hopelessness and weariness of those caught up in the cycles (the Captain sighs, “I see no solution”).
Cidade makes these same points with an energy and urgency that helped to draw massive audiences in Brazil and that, reportedly, affected a recent election. Brazil’s nomination for the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2003, the movie tracks three decades of gang warfare in one of Rio de Janiero’s most desperately poor housing projects (favelas), the City of God. Cidade attracted attention for its brutal violence, emotional jazz, and athletic camerawork (all recalling Scorsese and Tarantino). But more interestingly, it delves into daily traumas and fears, the bleak hierarchies of power, race, and desire that structure life in the projects. It’s an experience at once painfully specific and tragically “universal.”
Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues) is an aspiring photographer who first appears in the film with camera in hand. He’s got a new job at the newspaper, and he’s looking forward to getting off the streets, making a career. That he’s been hired as a result of his ability to get photos of his peers, the dealers and thugs who run the City of God, underlines the point: no one is clean, everyone owes something to someone, and survival is equal parts chance and strategy.
His heart’s desire is Angelica (Alice Braga) “Angelica,” he says as his photos click her in freeze frames, “I was crazy about her. She was gorgeous and the only girl in our gang who screwed.” When they first meet, she’s the girlfriend of another boy, but Rocket is struck as if by a thunderbolt. His efforts to win her attention (and, to that end, to entertain her) include seeking out some decent chronic, which leads him, inadvertently but hardly surprisingly, into a violent situation. That she never knows the extent of the risk he runs—or never reveals her knowledge if she has it—only underlines Rocket’s vision of Angelica: she is perfect and pure, removed from the unhappy streets where he and his friends have grown up.
This maturation process takes up much of the early part of Cidade, as Rocket’s memories bring a pseudo-personal frame to the rise of gangs in the favela. Back in the 1960s, he recalls, he was 11, running errands for his brother, dreaming of being a photographer. His immediate role models are local bangers, particularly the legendary Tender Trio, represented in his mind’s eye so they tower in the frame. The camera circles them as they negotiate, joke, and posture. When a youngster named Li’l Dice (Douglas Silva) pushes his way into the group with a plan to rob a local bordello, the older boys are stunned by his cunning and audacity. And when they go along, they have no idea just how audacious this kid will be.
The deal goes terribly wrong, the Trio dies off, and, as Rocket tells it, Li’l Dice disappears for a time. When he returns, renamed Li’l Zé (Leandro Firmino da Hora), he’s accompanied by Benny (Phellipe Haagensen), who serves as the foil for his awful buddy. Li’l Zé inspires fear: blithely violent, psychotically cruel, he takes pleasure in bringing pain to others. When the “runts,” a crew of very young kids who get by stealing and running barefoot in the streets, begin to bother Li’l Zé‘s clients, he hauls them into an alley. There he demands that two of them choose whether to be shot in the hand or the foot. They do so, and as they whimper in agony, he turns to a third child, instructing him to kill one of his two friends. The third has no option if he wants to live, and his murder of his friend inducts him into Li’l Zé‘s crew. His fate is set. And it’s just one of many fates so set.
If Li’l Zé is the resident monster in Cidade, inspiring dread in everyone around him, it soon becomes clear that everyone has a part in his creation. Even Benny, inexplicably generous and good-hearted, supports his “best friend” by his silence and willingness to stay out of his way. Benny slowly begins to detach himself from Li’l Zé‘s sphere of ghastly influence, blonding his hair, buying fashionable clothes, and eventually gaining a reputation as the “coolest” gangster, so cool that he wins Angelica’s heart.
Benny is also so sweet that Rocket can’t be mad at him. But Rocket can, because he’s mad at the world. Escalating violence at a club one night—at a farewell party for Benny, who is leaving the life in order to retire to a commune with his (and Rocket’s) lovely girl—leads to Benny’s death by a bullet intended for Li’l Zé. It’s clear that morality and even “coolness” have nothing to do with effect in the ghetto.
Rocket’s heartbreak at the loss of golden girl Angelica and golden boy Benny is metaphorical for a broader cultural experience. The hope represented by the least dark among the community underlines the racism and hopelessness felt by the other, darker, less optimistic members. These others, always left behind, include Li’l Zé, regarded as “ugly” by his fellows, a point repeated until he believes it himself. This leads to his own sense that he will never have a girl, like Benny did. He will never leave this life. Li’l Zé ensures a years-long war when, in utter frustration and for no “reason,” he rapes a girl in front of her boyfriend, the heretofore peaceful former soldier Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge). When Ned takes up the “heroic” cause of battling Li’l Zé, the war gives them all something to do, a bizarre sort of mission. They train, gather weapons, and fight. Some die. Then the survivors start again.
At the same time, Rocket, the film’s narrator and ostensible conscience, is trying to find his own way out. He does so by taking pictures of violence, of Li’l Zé‘s gang posing with guns, shots that the “regular” journalists can’t get, because the City of God is so legendarily frightening they dare not enter it, even to cover the “news.” That this is his ticket out of the favela and inside the journalistic enclave is, of course, partly ironic, partly horrifying.
Rocket sees what goes on, and while he judges it (as he allows you to judge it), he also cannot. This remove—on both ends—allows him to be the gangs’ chronicler: they are famous in their own minds, stars who deserve recognition and respect. And why shouldn’t they think this, as their fortunes, their precious few years of survival, have depended so completely on their ability to threaten, wreak havoc, and so, control their images?
The film’s most profound understanding is this, that the moral confusions shaping its protagonists are not particular to them, but surrounding all of us. Their responses, however, are functions of limits, not freedom, as they suspect. Even more disturbingly, Rocket’s photos are less documents than they are little bits of titillation for outsiders, those middle class folks outside the favelas, and most people watching Cidade.
Rocket’s photographs—much like the film’s own arresting, splashy images—are so impressive that they win him the attention of those “citizens” from outside, the people who won’t venture into his world. One of the editors at the paper is so struck by his naïvete and seemingly unformed grace that she takes him home, so he has a safe place to stay. There she beds him, his first intercourse (he was too shy to try to seduce Angelica).
In another movie, this is a basic plot turn, even a titillating moment. In Cidade, though, the seduction takes place off screen. But Rocket’s situation tells the story his narrative won’t: the editor’s clean, affluent, secure sense of herself, her sheltered apartment, her whiteness (in various senses) is exactly what Rocket and his friends so desperately want to possess. And they can’t. Even as a journalist, Rocket must remain outside the innocuous, comfortable world. Or rather, he must remain inside the City of God, in order to maintain his stardom among the outsiders.