Cidade de Deus (2002)
(City of God)    


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Warning, minor plot points revealed!

The slums of Rio de Janeiro are one of the scariest places on Earth.  The entire "City of God" ghetto and the housing development outside of town are literally teeming with abject poverty, extreme ultra violence and death.  It is astonishing to behold.  

Academy Award nominated director Fernando Meirelles has made a Cinema Verité-type homage to Martin Scorsese's "GoodFellas" with a little touch of Quentin Tarantino thrown in to increase the hip quotient.  The unique quality that sets him apart is the un-Americanized vision of a foreign director working outside of the typical Hollywood studio constraints.  He's not smashing boundaries like French auteurs Gaspar Noé or Virginie Despentes but he has definitely attracted attention.  

Using a cast of local actors and actual slum denizens, Meirelles has recreated the 1960's, 70's and 80's as presented in the novel by Paulo Lins based in part on his own experiences living in the slums and the life of Wilson Rodriguez, a Brazilian photographer.  

The story is seen through the eyes of an aspiring young photographer named Rocket  who relates the interconnected local tales of murder, crime and revenge.  These story's revolve around the rise to power of local gang leader Lil Ze and his partner Benny.  Murder is the fastest way to elevate your standing in the City of God, and Ze starts his killing spree at about age 7 and continues after he assumes leadership at about age 15.  

Like all children in the city, Rocket struggles to avoid being killed on a daily basis.  He tries his hand at crime but does not have the disposition.  He tries at love but loses his girl to Ze's playboy side-kick Benny.  By the time he gets a job as a freelance photographer for a local paper, he has the good (bad?) fortune of living in the very area where news is made and has exclusive access to the child gangsters. 

I've been watching a lot of Japanese films lately so I am somewhat immune to seeing really little children committing savage acts of violence (Fudoh, Battle Royale.)  I'm also a fan of Larry Clark films (Kids, Bully) so I have been desensitized.  However, the first time I saw a gang of tiny little children (some who appear to have just recently learned how to walk) running down the street waving handguns at the beginning of this film I knew this was going to be something special.  This is also evident in the scene where Ze (at about 15 or 16 years old) has one of his runners (who is about 7 or 8 years old) shoot and kill a boy (who is about 4 or 5 years old) for shoplifting candy in Ze's neighborhood.

I have actually been trying to see City of God for over a year but it's initial release was so limited it did not even play here in town.  Thankfully, it's multiple Oscar nominations have given it a wider release.  

Although the subject matter and locale are unquestionably harsh, the photography of the film is inspired and beautiful.  The "you-are-there" camera work makes the experience of the film all the more visceral and real.  It doesn't have the sweeping vistas favored by the Academy but if I were voting it would definitely take the Oscar for cinematography.  

The actors all do splendid work, especially the really little ones.  The little kid who plays Lil dice (before he became Lil Ze) is terrifying.  The cold glee in his wizened beyond his years eyes as he savagely dispatches his friends and foes is disturbing.  As an adult, at age 15 or so, he is even more intimidating.  Rocket too, reflects his heart in his eyes, but in them we see goodness and fear and sadness.  

My time spent anxiously waiting to see this movie did not diminish it's impact for me.  In fact, I actually liked it even more than I thought I would.  It's absolutely one of the best of 2003 (even if it was released in 2002.)  A great film from a great new film making talent, Fernando Meirelles.