City of God (Cidade de Deus) (2002)

by Elbert Ventura

23 January 2003


Once Upon a Time in Brazil

The testosterone practically drips off the screen in Cidade de Deus, a new Brazilian film distributed by Miramax. Already heralded as a U.S. breakthrough for Brazilian cinema, this hip, violent epic is also that country’s entry for the Academy Awards’ best foreign language film category. Judging by the Academy’s history, Cidade doesn’t stand a chance. After all, if they refused Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas an Oscar, why would they give it one now that it’s in Portuguese?

Cidade‘s champions may scoff at that crack, but Scorsese’s masterpiece is clearly the template for director Fernando Meirelles’s bullet-ridden saga. Spanning three decades, Cidade charts organized crime’s ascent in the eponymous “city,” a squalid housing project in Rio de Janeiro. From petty thefts and stick-ups, impoverished hoods eventually branched out to drugs and banded together in gangs. By the 1980s, turf battles had transformed the area into a war zone.

cover art

City of God (cidade De Deus)

Director: Fernando Meirelles
Cast: Leandro Firmino, Alexandre Rodrigues, Phellipe Haagensen, Jonathan Haagensen, Douglas Silva, Matheus Nachtergaele, Seu Jorge

US theatrical: 17 Jan 2003 (Limited release)

A brilliant staccato prologue thrusts the viewer into the maelstrom. Fragments of a street party—loud music, rowdy children and teens, a nervous chicken headed for a hot pot—are interspersed with the subliminal slashes of a knife being honed. Cut to Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), a neophyte photographer strolling to his first newspaper assignment. In short order, the chicken breaks loose, the heavily armed revelers chase after it, and a showdown with cops looms. Smack dab in the middle of the standoff stands Rocket, who tells us that this is how life is in the City of God—and takes us back to the 1960s, when it all began.

And so it goes. The prologue’s bracing velocity—and the flashy, Matrix-style shot that shuttles us to the past—sets the tone for the rest of this peripatetic movie. Cesar Charlone’s showy cinematography gives the ‘60s section a golden, mythologizing burnish. Rocket tells us of the Tender Trio—Shaggy (Jonathan Haagensen), Clipper (Jefechander Suplino), and Goose (Renato de Souza)—three hoodlums who traffic in messy stickups. He also tells us of Li’l Dice (Douglas Silva), like him just another poor 11-year-old in the Cidade. Unlike Rocket, Li’l Dice aspires to be a big-time gangster. Their diverging fates provide the backbone of this movie’s expansive narrative.

The 1970s gives Meirelles a chance to pencil in the details of his singular milieu. Now teenagers, the children of the previous section have segregated into cliques. Drug dealing, the dirty business Don Corleone warned everyone about, has become the gangs’ chosen enterprise. Li’l Dice has changed his name to Li’l Zé (Leandro Firmino da Hora), and has become the most feared hood in the city. Standing by him is the amiable Benny (Phellipe Haagensen), a Hawaiian-shirt-wearing dude known as the “coolest hood in Rio”—and who soon wants out of the drug business. In a tremendous set piece at a farewell party, violence erupts at the peak of tribal bonhomie, initiating a decade of gang warfare.

Meanwhile, Rocket’s dreams of becoming a photographer come closer to reality when his pictures of Li’l Zé and his gang inadvertently end up on the front page of the newspaper. The opportunity couldn’t have come at a better—or worse—time: war has broken out between the main rival gangs, as the ascendance of Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge) tilts the balance against Li’l Zé. A daisy-chain of vendettas ravages the war-torn city, leading to a climactic battle—the one that was poised to break out at the movie’s outset.

Based on a 700-page novel by Paulo Lins, himself a resident of Cidade de Deus, the movie is a giddy, Bosch-ian circus. Impressively assembled, deceptively well structured, Cidade juggles more than a few narrative balls. Meirelles shows an Altman-esque capacity for panoramic storytelling, piecing together dozens of speaking parts and several plot lines into a coherent whole. Rocket presides over the unfurling drama, serving as passive protagonist and audience surrogate.

Genuflecting at the altar of Scorsese, P.T. Anderson, and the like, Meirelles brings stylistic panache to his material. It’s no surprise that the movie was a sensation in Brazil upon its release in 2002. The movie has more trick shots than you can shake a billiard stick at: the aforementioned (and now-abused) Matrix FX shot; a ricocheting bullet’s POV; countless god’s-eye-view shots of well-choreographed shootings; paranoid, coke-induced jump cuts; and a complement of cool freeze-frames and sweet dollies.

A longtime director of commercials, Meirelles is a consummate showman. Therein lies the problem. An adrenaline jolt of a movie, Cidade de Deus is a depiction of how one becomes desensitized to violence that is itself desensitizing. The filmmakers follow the Scorsese playbook as far as technique goes, but they don’t even touch the moral conundrums that Goodfellas raised. Scorsese may have depicted the Mafia lifestyle ecstatically, but that was because our view was filtered through Henry Hill’s corrupt prism.

In Cidade, we see things through the gaze of Rocket—not a saint, but certainly a disgusted observer of the violence around him. Why then the splashy visuals? Why the thrilling set pieces, the grandstanding action? Nothing accounts for the stylistic choices that Meirelles makes, other than he wanted to make a brisk, entertaining ride. Cidade might be effective in engrossing its audience, but its efforts at provoking thought are remarkably lame. It’s a failure of conceptual imagination when a filmmaker uses all the bells and whistles of film technique, but couldn’t tell you how form relates to content.

But perhaps Meirelles does have an answer—it’s just not one he may want to give. Cidade has been compared with Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Amores Perros as part of a new trend of globalized youth cinema. Like Amores, Cidade does one thing really well: sell its director. Meirelles plays to the crowd, plays everything for effect, which wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if the subject didn’t deserve greater intellectual seriousness.

Movies of impressive craft, the two also reveal a disturbing trend in U.S. film criticism: the championing of foreign films that look, feel, and smell like state-of-the-art Hollywood fare. I’m frankly baffled by Charlone’s claims that he and Meirelles wanted to avoid “the glamorization and exploitation of violence and make a ‘beautiful’ action film, full of effects and tricks.” Exhausting in its visual elan, Cidade makes Boogie Nights look like a model of neorealist austerity.

“This violence sucks,” moans one of the film’s many endearing characters at one point. Meirelles may agree, but you might not be able to tell. Riveting yet soulless, Cidade is sure to win its share of raves and probably earn a healthy take for a foreign film at the U.S. box office. The movie will shake you up, leave you dazed, a testament to Meirelles prodigious skills. What it won’t do is leave you with a better understanding of poverty, violence, machismo, Brazil, and all the other things it purports to be about. It’s a shame that the squalor and pain of real people should inspire nothing more than a calling-card movie.

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