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Cidade de Deus: a fraught reality, a powerful story

Understanding the inception of place

Cidade de Deus, portuguese for City of God, is a now famous neighbourhood in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Coming into existence in 1960, the neighbourhood was established for families living in favelas in the city centre. However the housing project quickly became a hotbed for drug wars and largely unchecked criminal activity. By 1970 the neighbourhood was home to armed drug gangs, and by the close of the century these drug factions ruled the area and were considered ‘owners of the favela’. As of 2013, according to the BBC, the area was still home to 40,000 people. In recent years, despite efforts to cease violence in the area, it is still known as a place of poverty and crime.

In 2002, the Cidade de Deus received global attention from a film of the same name, based on the book written by Paulo Lins who himself grew up in the neighbourhood. The plot, based loosely on real events, focuses on life in the favelas as organised crime grows from the end of the 1960s. Using people living in the favelas as actors in the film and shooting in favelas, Cidade de Deus garnered critical acclaim and captured audiences around the world.

Exploring the film

Fernando Meirelles’ Cidade de Deus begins with a bang and doesn’t let up. This bang comprises of a fast-paced race between a desperate chicken escaping slaughter and a pistol bearing gang of young teenagers who carry the audience through the rest of the unfolding action.

Chaos becomes a character in and of itself as the chicken escapes and the gang takes chase, following through narrow, winding streets. In the mayhem shots are fired and our antagonist and protagonist, Li’l Zé and Rocket, come face to face, with the chicken between them. Just as Rocket is crouched over the chicken ready to pick it up, the cops arrive. He freezes, and his voice comes in as narrator; “In the City of God, if you run away, they get you, and if you stay they get you too.”

Cidade de Deus is told predominantly by the main character, Rocket. It follows him and Li’l Zé (originally known as Li’l Dice) through their childhood and into their teenage years. As the latter chooses a life of crime in the neighbourhood rife with gangs, the former chooses photography. Through these characters, those around them, and the place itself, this film depicts life in the Cidade de Deus as crime-fuelled power struggles become the norm and gang wars break out.

Actor Leandro Firmino da Hora portrays Li’l Zé, a chilling character who is saturated with a deep-seeded meanness. Leandro conveys his cold, calculating, unpredictable nature, a person with no obvious empathy. It is Li’l Zé that becomes a crime and drug lord by killing his way to the top. His friendship with Benny offers a glimpse into his humanity, but this is overshadowed by the fact that his first reaction is to fight, to brandish his gun and use its power to humiliate people, or to kill them in cold blood. Leandro is fearless in this role and gives those watching an insight into how young people became caught up in the violence and power struggles of their neighbourhood.

Meanwhile, Alexandre Rodrigues brings Rocket to life. This character is pivotal as the narrator of the film and Li’l Zé’s polar opposite. Growing up in this neighbourhood, he has seen many of his peers and family members succumb to drugs, violence and lawlessness, and yet he remains openly opposed to this way of life. He chooses his camera over a gun despite and because of what is happening around him. Portrayed as a real and flawed human being that is good, smart, clever and honest, Rocket is a glimmer of hope in a starkly rough world. He is able to see this objectively and want something greater, and yet not turn his back and still accept where he came from.

One sequence highlights the way of life in the favela, and the choice offered to Rocket and children like him. He is fired unfairly from his menial job as a grocery store shelf re-stocker and in a fit of frustration tries to use violence to solve his problems. He tucks a gun into the waistband of his jeans and intends to rob unsuspecting patrons on his way home. However, the bus ticket collector is an old friend, the checkout girl is sweet and distracting, and the man from San Paulo who picks them up when they’re hitchhiking is just “too cool.” It is possible to see how violence becomes an answer in a landscape where unfairness reigns.

These two characters, Rocket and Li’l Zé who are so alive, balance each other out. Director Mierelles has a knack for balance. The play between high tension and mellow moments, fast paced and slow stretches, a horrifying image of a child killing to a genuine friendship and first love, is artful and effective. The combination of all the different elements: sound, music, colour, camera angles, lighting, all come together to create a momentum, a rise and fall that depicts life within the City of God. It tells the vibrant and personal story of Rocket and Li’l Zé, but it also tells the story of the people who had to live in this time and place. It tells of the innocents who got swept up in the fight for power and bloodlust. It tells of the corruption of children. It tells of the difficulty to get out of this situation. It tells of the great loss of the war for power, and how even those fighting forgot what they were fighting for.


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