What kind of people chase a runaway chicken with a gun? The young men from City of God, a sprawling slum in Rio de Janeiro. The irony is that City of God is actually a raging hell where little children grow up playing with weapons, the streets are literally soaked in blood and even the good guys eventually succumb to the siren call of crime. The place redefines the term urban jungle. It is the living embodiment of Macbeth’s immortal line about life being “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles brilliantly captures this sound and fury in his 2002 film. City of God is a descent into the abyss but the film doesn’t allow us the comfort of viewing these lives from the outside. Instead, from the opening chicken-chasing sequence, we are plunged into the throbbing, pulsating slum life. The film is based on the book of the same name by Paulo Lins. Lins grew up in the favela so this is a view from the inside spanning from the 1960s to the 1980s when cocaine brought in more money, more guns and more gang warfare.
The narrator is Rocket, the stand in for Lins. Rocket, whose brother is a hoodlum, has a front-row seat to the violence. Incredibly, he resists the lure of easy money and the short-but-good life. At one point, he tries to rob but it doesn’t work because he’s just too nice. But he becomes our guide and entry point. At the other end of the spectrum is the vicious L’il Zé who kills people for fun. Murder doesn’t make him pause – even as a little boy, he’s up for it. In fact, he actively seeks it out like another kid would a favorite toy.
Most of the actors in City of God are first-timers selected from the slums around Rio de Janeiro. In an interview, Meirelles had described his selection process – 2000 young people were interviewed and eventually around 200 went through months of improvisation and acting exercises after which the leads were chosen. Meirelles and DoP César Charlone shot the film in a specific manner capturing entire scenes from beginning to end rather than chopping them up. What this does is give the film an authenticity and a distinctive energy.
But what makes City of God so breathtaking is Meirelles’ passion for these people. His gaze doesn’t judge these wretched lives – he gives us the color, the music and the humor. Even as people are dying everywhere, Rocket’s prime concern is how to lose his virginity. And when Benny, the coolest gangster in the hood, dyes his hair, he declares: I’ve become a playboy.
City of God is also an examination of what defines masculinity. In one scene, a character says to a boy who looks about 10 or 11, “You’re just a kid.” And the boy replies angrily – A kid? I smoke, snort. I’ve killed and robbed. I’m a man. Murder is a step toward manhood and the age keeps dropping so childhood is reserved only for toddlers. In one of the film’s most harrowing scenes, L’il Zé forces a young boy to choose between killing two boys even younger than him. It’s perverse and horrifying.
City of God was nominated for four Oscars including best director and best adapted screenplay. You can watch the film on YouTube.