Two young beauties sit on the beach, bathed in glorious sunlight. Their backs to camera, the girl, tanned, golden-haired and lithe, leans into the dark-skinned black boy, kissing his cheek. The sea, like their lives, appears to stretch endlessly before them.
This enchanting image appears prominently in the ad campaign for Cidade de Deus (City of God), co-directed by Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund. Brazil’s nomination for the Best Foreign Film Oscar and currently hailed as the hot new import from south of the U.S. border, 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.
While much attention has been paid to Cidade‘s brutal violence and athletic camerawork (especially as it reminds critics of Scorsese and Tarantino), scenes like the one on the beach, serene and almost tourist-brochure-ishly attractive, reveal something else about what’s at issue in Cidade. Along with all the visual pyrotechnics and emotional jazz, the film (adapted by Bráulio Mantovani from Paolo Lins’ 700-page novel), also 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.”
The boy on the resplendent beach is Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), 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.
The girl on the beach is Angelica (Alice Braga). 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, getting along by running errands for his brother, dreaming of being a photographer. His most immediate role models are local bangers, particularly the Tender Trio, represented in his mind’s eye so they seem to 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 can not. 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.