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In the poor Brazilian housing project Cidade de Deus (City of God) in Rio de Janeiro, where organised crime and drugs make the neighbourhood violent, two boys growing up take a different path: one becomes a photographer, the other a powerful drug dealer. Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues) is a poor black kid who is too frail and scared to become an outlaw, but too smart to settle for too little. He eventually becomes a professional photographer, which is his redemption. Young L’il Dice (Douglas Silva) dreams of being Rio’s most dangerous criminal, a dream which he achieves, and even changes his name to L’il Ze (Leandro Firmino da Hora).

Review by Andrew L. Urban:
While attending the film festival in Rio de Janeiro in 1988, I stayed at a hotel which faced one of Rio’s famous favelas, clinging to a hillside. I’d look out of my window with mixed emotions as the kids played in the dirt, shacks crowded together defying gravity and held up by hope. I was also struck by the permanent display of washing hanging out of windows, on makeshift washing lines and wires. It was the reverse of the adage about hanging out dirty washing. Here was a hellhole whose inhabitants lived in the dirt of poverty yet had a phobia about clean clothes. It wasn’t the City of God project, but a real slum, and it was notorious as a place that bred violence and crime. But not as bad as City of God. And by 1988, the story that is told in City of God was already history. 

Beginning in the 60s, City of God (the name of the project to house homeless in a Rio suburb) is fictional but it is nevertheless based on true stories. And the film’s achievement is that it goes a long way toward shedding light on how and why the place became a graveyard for so many – and so many of them mere kids. It’s a film about the waste of life that can be triggered by the right – or wrong – conditions. 

We all profess to know that, but here it is portrayed in the powerful language of cinema. We cannot look away. Paolo Lins, born in City of God, spent eight years researching for his book, which is the basis of this film. Director Fernando Meirelles has found a very specific cinematic language to tell the story (condensed and edited from the 600 page book), a language that uses fast-forward and time shift techniques as a way of unsettling us and layering the images with tension, danger and uncertainty. This works well, although some clarity is lost; it takes some effort to recognise and keep up with the characters, the drugs, the changing relationships and the central story of young Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues) through the 15 odd year span of time. 

Rocket’s narration helps, and his deliverance from the City of God to a worthwhile life provides the one glimmer of light in this tragic film. It will sadden you and haunt you, and make you understand yet another aspect of the human condition.

As if we needed more of the same, the 60 minute documentary, News From A Personal War, shot in 1997/98, takes the subject deeper, with its three sided view of the problems of life, drugs and violence in Rio’s slums: the policeman, the drugdealers and – caught in the middle – the inhabitants.

To get these young dealers (some as young as 13) to talk on camera – albeit behind masks or faces blurred – is what gives the doco unusual depth. Plus the fact that the kids have a sense of clothes: they have to look good, they say, so they all choose the right grand of T shirt, jeans and sneakers. 

It’s a sad but illuminating excursion into the darker side of life – although it doesn’t seem that way to the participants.

Published October 30, 2003

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(Brazil, France, USA)

Cidade de Deus

CAST: Matheus Nachtergaele, Seu Jorge, Alexandre Rodrigue, Leandro Firmino da Hora, Philippe Haagensen

DIRECTOR: Fernando Meirelles

SCRIPT: Bráulio Mantovani (novel by Paulo Lins)

RUNNING TIME: 124 minutes

PRESENTATION: 16:9; DD 5.1 IN Portuguese (English subtitles)

SPECIAL FEATURES: News from a personal war.


DVD RELEASE: October 22, 2003

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