AFTER STARRING IN THE TWO-WEEKLONG MINI-SERIES Can't Keep it on the Shelf, I finally secured a copy of Fernando Meirelles (camera director) & Katia Lund's (acting director) gritty 2002 Brazilian docudrama, Cidade de Deus (City of God). Why my neighborhood Blockbuster only ordered 4 copies is beyond me; but all my stomping out of the store five times empty-handed succeeded in doing was building my expectation to a level no film - nor any worldly experience, for that matter - could possibly live up to.
Or could it?
In Portuguese with English subtitles, City of God is, in fact, otherworldly. Much in the way of Coppola's The Godfather, it is at once impossibly brutal, yet impossibly beautiful - a tale of contradictions. Set during the 60's and 70's in Rio de Janiero's poorest and most violent favela (a housing project created to isolate Rio's impoverished from its wealthy tourist sector), it follows the real-life stories of two City of God youth headed in drastically different directions - Lil Dice, an ambitious drug dealer, and Rocket, an aspiring photographer who stumbles onto the artform via a stolen camera.
Narrated by a teenage Rocket, a journalist intern, City of God is presented as a sequence of artfully interwoven flashbacks against a soundtrack alternating between samba, American disco, and loopy, blaxploitation wah-wah guitar. In the beginning, we find the main characters, Lil Dice and Rocket in the sepia-toned slum as preadolescents. Their teenage brothers, Shaggy and Goose, are part of the Trio, a band of small-time stick-up artists. Lil Dice, small in size but big in ideas, concocts a scheme to make the Trio some real money - to rob a brothel. The plans go awry when the Trio crashes their sleek stolen getaway car into a houseful of people, initiating a life on the run.
But life in the City of God is short. Where bulletsprays are more common than rainshowers, both Shaggy and Goose meet their deaths before the age of 20. Clipper, the third member of the Trio, walks into a chapel and finds God - the only mention of the deity in the film. Incidentally, we never see the famous 100 ft. statue of Jesus which overlooks all of Rio - an omission which subtly states that that God has no jurisdiction there.
We then fast-forward to the 70's where the ambitious Lil Dice seeks out a Candomble priest to empower him to become druglord of the favela. Initiated into the orisha, Exu, the coal-complexioned Lil Dice takes on a new name, Lil Ze. In West African faiths, the orisha, Exu (alternately called Eshu, Elegua, Elegba depending on the country) is keeper of the crossroads. No ritual or ceremony can begin without making an offer to him lest it be doomed to fail. And within the City of God, the newly anointed Lil Ze quickly rises to Exu-like status.
Given an eleke, (a beaded necklace) which spiritually endows him, Lil Ze is also given the specific instruction to never wear it while engaging in sex. But on his bloody, ruthless rise to power, one of the first things Lil Ze does is rape a woman, setting up his inevitable downfall.
The remainder of the film focuses primarily on Lil Ze's rise and fall. Not even 20 years old, Lil Ze takes command of the favela's cocaine and marijuana traffic. Deadlier than the gang warfare of 80's Los Angeles, what was most arresting to me as an American viewer was not the brutal violence - but rather who was committing it: 7, 8, and 9 year-old children. Where stealing and murder are rites of passage, hopelessness becomes religion.
"I smoke, I snort," declares a member of The Runts, a City of God youth gang. "I'm a man."
In another exchange between preadolescents who can't yet read:
"Drugs. That's where the real money is. You start out as a deliverer and work your way up."
"I don't want to. It takes too long," another Runt counters. "You have to wait for one of the old people to die."
The "old people" to which he refers include Lil Ze - not yet aged 20.
After killing any, and every, one who stands in his way, Lil Ze, like God, creates a warped sense of peace across the favela. Insatiable, he possesses money and power, but the two things he lacks cannot be gotten with money and muscle: good looks and fame. Which proves to be his downfall.
Lil Ze has an eye for the girlfriend of Knockout Ned, so called because of his stunning good looks. But the only way Lil Ze can get sex is by raping a woman or paying for it. Which results in Ned's girlfriend refusing Lil Ze's sexual advances. Which drives the psychopathic Lil Ze and his gang on an Uzi rampage, murdering most of Ned's family. Which leads Ned to raise a rival gang with the sole mission of ending Lil Ze's reign. And his life.
As increasing violence escalates the story of the rival gangs into the Rio de Janeiro news, Knockout Ned - in and out of jail - receives all of the camera time. Which makes Lil Ze, hidden lord of the City of God, even more jealous. Which is where Rocket's childhood relationship to Lil Ze threads together the plot's fabric.
Rocket, now a new intern at the city newspaper, is looking for a break to get his first published photograph. Because of their fairer-complexions and lives of privilege, the paper's professional photographers don't have access to the Vietnam-like warzone of the favela. The result: Lil Ze in a photo, posing with a truckload of guns on the frontpage with aspiring photographer, Rocket, getting the credit.
Rocket's follow-up assignment is to obtain more photos of Lil Ze. But while on assignment, he finds himself in the film's climax - the center of a cyclone of bullets, the worst gunfire to ever hit the City of God.
Awash in sepia, bronze, and gold filters, City of God , despite its ubiquitous violence, is undeniably beautiful. The director, Meirelles, takes no soapbox against the cruel barbaric state of the lives of the children, but rather detaches and simply presents it. The frantic, unsteady camera shots echo the slum's lawlessness, while simultaneously giving the handheld authenticity of a documentary. Add to this, Lund's direction of 200 non-actor youth from the slums of Rio, and City of God becomes even more remarkable.
Ironically, the only authentic stamp missing in City of God is the film's location. It had to be shot in other neighborhoods in Rio because the real City of God was too dangerous.
Even now, over two decades later.