City of God
by Barry Meyer
Fight and you’ll never survive… Run and you’ll never escape.
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City of God (Cidade de Deus), besides being the title of the film it is the ironic name given to a poverty stricken flavela (slum village) on the outskirts of fabulous Rio de Janeiro. The residents in the housing development are the cast-outs, driven away from the touristy areas to make it more attractive and appealing to the revenue-building vacationers. It’s not a particularly appropriate name for a village that seems a lost place where lawlessness pervades, and malevolent children soon grow into vicious drug dealing teens.
Director Fernando Meirelles unravels Paulo Lin’s autobiographical tale with a series of flashbacks, recounting the contrasting lives of two of the flavela’s children - Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), the narrator and moral center of the film, and L’il Ze (Douglas Silva), the new punk to the projects with aspirations much grander than his capabilities, but corrupt enough for his pained soul. Their personalities could not be more opposite of each others, but their lives inevitably intermingle in the small, cramped slum village - which is just as much a character in this story as is its residents. Just as many kids do who grow up in the bad parts of town, Rocket wants to get out. He doesn’t know it yet, but his fondness for photography may just be his ticket. L’il Ze, who started his Cidade de Deus life known as L’il Dice, on the other hand, has found his future right there in the projects - drugs. He teams up with a well liked local boy, Shaggy, changes his name to the more threatening L’il Ze, and then hatches a plan to take over the entire slum city’s several drug operations in a bloody and violent drug war.
City of God has drawn comparisons to the works of Quentin Tarrantino for it’s lightning speed pace and penchant for violence. The association runs very shallow. Tarrantino’s films are a high energy display of testosterone induced violence, with the emphasis on fun and entertainment. His characters are more caricature that characters, and every line is a pop culture quip. What his films lack, though, is even a remote hint of any humanity. This is where Meirelles steps ahead. The loud, feverishly paced violence is highly evident on the screen all during City of God, but unlike in a Tarrantino film, we have a proper gauge for its effects - the young innocence and near corruption of Rocket, as he grows up before our eyes.
Meirelles is able to draw on the audience’s emotions with his inventive use of characters that transcend the usual archetypes. L’il Ze seems pure evil on first acquaintances, but the more we see and experience him the more we understand that he has weaknesses too, that he has needs emotionally that he can’t figure out how to fulfill. His violence stems not just from his lust for power, but also from his vulnerabilities. It’s not common in movies that we have the chance to feel for villain so hideous as L’il Ze.
A more fair comparison for this film would be to a Scorsese film, primarily Good Fellas, for its ability to get inside the characters, especially the more seemingly inhumane ones, and giving them a life with depth. And like Good Fellas, and even Raging Bull, City of God demonstrates that the failures of people, and their descent into corruption, is not purely environment, but, as in the comparison of Rocket to L’il Ze, it is most definitely a choice - either you struggle past it, or give in and burn.
Barry Meyer is a writer living in New Jersey. He’s worked in the film and television biz for the past 10 plus years.
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