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City of God (Cidade de Deus) - Alexandre Rodrigues, Matheus Nachtergaele, Seu Jorge, Kátia Lund, Fernando Meirelles

Threat advisory: High - High risk of entertaining activities

Movie propaganda

The main character in Cidade de Deus is not a person. It is a place. Cidade de Deus is a poor housing project started in the 60s that became one of the most dangerous places in Rio de Janeiro by the beginning of the 80s.

In order to tell the story of the place the film tells us the stories of many characters. But all is seen through the eyes of the narrator: Buscapé (Alexandre Rodrigues), a poor black kid too frail and scared to become an outlaw but also to smart to be content with an underpaid job.

He grows up in a very violent environment. The odds are all against him. But he discovers he can see the reality with a different eye: the eye of an artist. Eventually he becomes a professional photographer. That is his redemption.

Buscapé is not the real protagonist of the film. He is not the one who makes the story moves on. He is not the one who makes the decisions that will determine the main chain of events. Nevertheless, not only his life is attached to what happens in the story but it is also through his perspective of life that we understand the humanity of a world apparently condemned to endless violence.

Theatrical propaganda posters

City of God (Cidade de Deus) image

Target demographic movie keyword propaganda

  • Film Brazil crime slum child teen gang Rio de Janeiro photography violence drugs family cocaine

Persons of interest

  • Alexandre Rodrigues .... Buscapé
  • Matheus Nachtergaele .... Sandro Cenoura
  • Seu Jorge .... Mane Galinha
  • Leandro Firmino da Hora .... Ze Pequeno
  • Phelipe Haagensen .... Bene
  • Jonathan Haagensen .... Cabeleira
  • Douglas Silva .... Dadinho
  • Roberta Rodriguez Silvia .... Berenice
  • Graziela Moretto .... Marina
  • Paulo Lins .... Author
  • Bráulio Mantovani .... Screenwriter
  • Kátia Lund .... Director
  • Fernando Meirelles .... Director

Cinematic intelligence sources

Intelligence analyst

Agent Provocateur Alexander Feld

Theatrical report

The star of Fernando Meirelles' powerful, visceral Cidade de Deus is not an actor. The lead role goes to a slum. The place of the title, ironically translating into "City of God", is a favela on the outer fringes of Rio de Janeiro. (Forget that Boy from Ipanema, Sugarloaf and Mojitos; this may as well be Mars.) Conceived in urban renewal optimism in the heady mid 60s, it degenerated within a few years to a festering stinkhole of drugs, crime and poverty, so dangerous that the drug dealers become warlords, so treacherous to this day that this film could not be shot there.

The movie is split into three chapters, each bleaker and more appalling than the one before. They depict the intertwining quasi-biblical destinies of Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), and one of his childhood playmates, Li'l Dice. Rocket dreams of being a photographer; Li'l Dice has very different plans. After an actual wild goose chase, culminating in a tongue-in-cheek meeting of the leads, we are flashed back to the near-idyllic 60s. Rocket, our narrator, recalls the misadventures of a clique of teenage outlaws called the Tender Trio, who attempt to go big time with a brothel heist. Things get bloody bloody fast; the botched job ends in a hail of bullets and marks the transformation of Li'l Dice from snot-nosed hoodlum into trigger-happy sociopath.

After growing up and changing his handle to Li'l Zé (Leandro Firmino da Hora takes over the part), he further transforms himself into drug lord numero uno. The stuff becomes harder (cocaine unseats marijuana) and the armaments harsher. The second chapter, set in the mid 70s, focuses on Li'l Zé's escalating reign of terror. He is kept in check, barely, by his lieutenant-cum-minder Benny (Phelipe Haagensen). Benny, the film's most likeable character, is a smart, cute hoodlum with hippie affability and a groovy wardrobe. He eventually decides to end his marriage of crime with Li'l Zé and move to the country with his girlfriend. The ensuing farewell fête, at a disco, ends in an inevitable shoot-out. Daringly filmed with jerky hand-held cameras, strobe lights blaring, underscored by (of all things) that dreadful disco hit Kung fu fighting, this is the sort of bolshie filmmaking that could cause hysterics in the wrong hands. Its ensuing success, an upmarket blend of murder, irony and gallows humour, makes for one of the film's finest moments.

The final third, set in the early 80s, finds Li'l Zé's empire threatened by an even younger crew of ankle-biting gangsters called, appropriately, the Runts. Some of them seem barely toilet trained; in actuality they are as young as seven and eight. Customary cinematic gang warfare ensues. It all builds to a wild-west style showdown between Li'l Zé's forces and a rival band led by Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge). Ned, a dignified pacifist bus conductor, puts down his hole puncher for an Uzi on account that the charming Li'l Zé has raped his girlfriend, shot up his parents' home, and murdered his brother.

Meanwhile, the penniless but ambitious Rocket has entered photojournalism at the lowest possible level - newspaper delivery boy. Hanging around the broadsheet's photo lab, his ship comes in when his ad hoc snapshot of the now-celebrated Li'l Zé and his gun-toting posse winds up on page one. Meirelles now ups the irony ante with a resonant bang: Rocket, thinking himself a marked man, now finds himself "hired" by the publicity-hungry drug lord as some kind of deranged court photographer, effectively acting as a shutter-happy double agent. Which eventually brings us back to that chicken chase...

Cidade was filmed on the streets of Rio (but not in Cidade de Deus) with a cast that includes some 200 non-professional actors. This difficult casting is utilised to ideal effect, the actors unknowingly turning Cinéma vérité into naturalism. Firmino da Hora is a pro, however, and it shows. His sadistic nihilism is so convincing that one often feels the impulse to look away. His performance is total, committed and mad. It is also a double-edged machete - one cannot fault his acting, but his work is so studied and large that some of his interactions with the "non-pro" actors, especially well into the film, highlight the disparity.

Cesar Charlone's cinematography is a veritable kitchen sink of effects - look for slow and accelerated motion, ample use of split screens, harsh close-ups, boom and pan shots, music video bangs and a colour palette worthy of a Guggenheim retrospective. But somehow this all works. Although gravely realistic in context, Cidade is decidedly cinematic in content. Li'l Zé's entry into a coke den is experienced no less than three times, à la Run Lola, run. The provenance of the apartment itself is portrayed from a single, seemingly frozen lens. The teeming inhabitants, the filth, betrayals, deals and murders, and shocking decor, unfurl in a series of dissolves. The motivation for yet another meaningless murder, in this case committed by a pathetic Runt, is told in a time-warp montage.

This sort of daring filmmaking, especially with this difficult material, is fraught with problems and there are more than a few. All this is based on a non-fiction novel: author Paolo Lins' huge tome was the result of eight years field research and data collecting in the Cidade. It apparently makes for one hell of a read (and, at over 700 pages, a long one). Getting it onto the screen must have been one uphill battle. Draft after draft was required, characters were compressed and plot lines eliminated. The final script, however, although accomplished, seems slightly overwritten. Rocket's narration is very strong but the ensuing mishmash of characters, especially half-pint hoodlums and their moles, is often hard to follow. And with brazen camera work that is often deliberately out-of sync with the text, with strong imagery shoved into your face every minute or so, viewer confusion is more than nominal. Who's on which side? By the way, who just got shot?

Nonetheless, Cidade is a remarkable film. It jumps the fences of realistic cinema and lands on its feet. Despite its gritty and carnivorous story, it manages to be far from depressing. Despite its length, it does not drag. There is not a weak player in the giant cast. Some of the violence, especially involving pre-pubescents, is challenging, but it's not Private Ryan in Rio and it is presented honestly. There's ample humour throughout, like diversions into teens discovering sex, falling in love and all the joys and pains of growing up. We are also reminded, through the struggle and eventual victory of one the characters, that one maxim that never fades, even in the filthiest favela. Hope.

Media intelligence (DVD)

  • Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound
  • Disc: Single side, dual layer
  • Languages: Portuguese
  • Picture: Widescreen (1.85:1)
  • Special features:
    • Documentaries: News from a private war
  • Subtitles: English, English captions, English closed captions

Security censorship classification

R 18+ (Medium level violence, adult themes)

Surveillance time

130 minutes (2:10 hours)

Not for public release in Australia before date

Film: 13 March 2003
DVD retail: 7 July 2004

Cinema surveillance images

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