“City of God” was directed by Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund. Told through a series of vignettes, this Brazilian film with English subtitles focuses on two kids surviving in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. We watch as they grow from small children to young adults, one eventually ascending to the drug kingpin of the city while the other struggles to realize his dream of becoming a photographer, documenting the poverty and corruption of Rio.
Using a popular technique of storytelling the film is cleverly assembled, starting with the climax and then jumping back to the beginning of the story. From there it follows a fairly linear path, telling the stories of various characters whose lives and relationships are interwoven.
The film is filled mostly with non-actors portraying lives that are probably not too different from the ones they’ve lived. The lead is Buscape, played by Alexandre Rodrigues, who’s better known to all as Rocket. His acting is critical to the success of the film as we watch a kid who despite his surroundings focuses on the things any teenage boy would, scoring some pot, losing his virginity and staying out of harms way. Watching his brother and friends going nowhere with their nihilistic lives fueled by petty crime he strives to be more than another victim. A modest hero he’s someone you can root for.
Leandro Firmino da Hora, known first as Lil’ Dice and later Lil’ Ze is Rocket’s foil. Homicidal as a child of no more than ten years, his lust for power and violence only grows as he does. He seems to fear nothing and actually takes delight in murdering anyone who challenges him or even catches him on a bad day. A true sociopath his lack of conscience is actually comical as he dispatches one of one his gang because the guy just doesn’t know when to shut up.
Lil’ Ze’s sidekick from early childhood is Benny, played by Philippe Haagensen. Benny comes to realize there’s more to life than accumulating power and money. A lover, not a fighter, his heart isn’t in the game. He acts as Lil’ Ze’s conscious, frequently diffusing explosive situations.
The film is based on the book by the real-life Rocket, who did make it out of the slums and takes a raw, unvarnished look at the hordes of homeless children that populate the streets of Rio. It never seeks to sentimentalize their plight, nor does it minimize the misery in which they exist. They live life the only way they know how.
In recent weeks “City of God” has been immensely hyped in the media, but it’s important to keep in mind this is a small film of modest means and production values. Because of the lack of polish though there’s an honesty to the storytelling. I’m Erik Petersen for Movie Magazine.
© 2003 - Erik Petersen - Air Date: 1/29/03
City of God
Brazil - 2002