City of God, directed by Fernando Meirelles and co-directed by Kátia Lund (2002), epitomises the manner in which Brazil’s urban poverty is currently being projected. The film employs a style of fast cutting, abbreviated exposition, tinted colour palettes and perpetually moving handheld photography; techniques which have undeniably become a reified visual ‘pre-set’ for representing Latin American experience below subsistence level. City of God restages epochal class conflicts as a series of personal narratives, beginning in the 1960s when the military dictatorship ‘cleaned up the city’ for the rich by means of slum evictions and real estate development. Adapting the technique of first person voice-over commentary deployed in Scorsese’s crime epics Casino and Goodfellas, the film’s narrator, Rocket, is a young (and like most favela residents, black) slum dweller relocated to the City of God, obscures the political significance of his eviction by giving the cause as flooding and ‘acts of arson in the slums’. Passing over this primordial act of state violence, the film jumps forward to the spectacular gang warfare between the narco-traficantes who gained control of Rio’s favelas in the ‘70s.
City of God (Cidade de Deus) is a film based on real-life accounts, located in the Brazilian slum called The City of God of Paulo Lins. It depicts the growth of the crime in this Rio de Janeiro's suburb, between the end of the 60's and the beginning of the 80's. It has been described by some as the Brazilian Goodfellas. Even though City of God might be set in the outskirts of Rio it has universal echoes. The film is an assured meditation on the inevitability of violence in a ghetto where people are almost entirely without hope. Fortunately the killings, and their underlying social discontent, are lightened with dark humour and engaging performances.
The performances are astonishing as they are authentic, understandably, as the child actors were recruited from the favela streets in which the film is set, avoiding the gloss of stage school. Meirelles and co-director Katia Lund worked for eight months prior to shooting, creating the various episodes through a series of improvisational workshops. The results are incredible – one harrowing, brilliantly acted scene in particular involves a rising group of vicious child gangsters, who give one of their even younger victims the choice of being shot “in the hand or in the foot” in one of the most disturbing scenes in recent years that Hollywood or Europe would shy away from. We’re really not used to seeing children wielding guns as brutal killers and this film really hammers that home.
Different actors play the main characters, as children and as young adults. Douglas Silva is arresting as the child villain Little Dice, whose cold-eyed acceptance of murder as a tool of self-progression is utterly convincing. Leandro Firmino de Hora also excels in the same character's adult role, with a performance that is spine-chillingly real in its lust for power and disregard for human life.