“You need more than guts to be a good gangster. You need ideas.”
When City of God arrived at cinemas in 2002 its impact was as a gunshot delivered by one of its drug dealing protagonists. Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund’s tale of drug dealers in Rio de Janeiro’s most notorious slum was an ambitious film that combined a kinetic style with a harrowing realism. The power and energy of the film made contemporary films that year seem almost geriatric in comparison and it was rewarded with impressive box office numbers and four Academy Award nominations.
The film’s genesis stemmed from the semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, written by Paulo Lins who had grown up in the notorious favela of Cidade de Deus. Lins's book was published in 1997 and covered the lives of three young men growing up in the City of God. The 600 page novel spanned three decades and incorporated stories that Lins had either witnessed or heard about, resulting in a history of life in the favelas during that period.
The actual history of the drug gangs in the favelas during this period is fascinating and whilst touched on in the film it is covered in more detail in the disc’s extras. During the 1960s the military dictatorship that controlled Brazil, imprisoned a number of revolutionaries amongst hardened criminals in an effort to dilute their influence. However instead of being absorbed and probably killed by the criminals, the revolutionaries actually politicised them and taught them how to organise themselves. Ultimately the revolutionaries decided that organised crime could be a way of both funding revolutionary activity and of providing social welfare. Life within the favelas was largely separate from the rest of Brazilian society and the lack of any police or social security meant that the gangs filled this void. There are numerous stories surrounding these original gangs, mostly relating to acts of charity towards the population of the favelas.
Of course the original political leaders were soon usurped by violent criminals whose only motivation was monetary gain and as the popularity of cocaine increased in the slums, so did the gangs. As the numbers of gangs increased, so did the level of violence thanks in large part to a spectacularly corrupt police force who sold confiscated weapons back to the gangs. The government soon realised that if this teeming mass of well-armed malcontents ever rose up they could seriously threaten the status quo and so a period of brutal policing ensued where special units effectively acted like executioners. This war of attrition between the police and the gangs resulted in the favelas becoming some of the most dangerous places on earth, with someone being killed in Rio de Janeiro every 30 minutes.
Condensing such a sprawling history with multiple characters into a single film was never going to be easy but by using a central character as the narrator, screenwriter Braulio Mantovani was able to fashion a coherent story. The character of Rocket is clearly based on Paulo Lins who used journalism as a way out of the slums, although in the film Rocket wants to be a photographer. This aspect is based on a friend of Lins so in effect Rocket is a composite character and acts as our guide through the City of God itself. With so many characters it was important to make them distinctive and memorable - which the film does - from the likable Benny to the conflicted Knockout Ned to the utterly psychotic Li’l Ze.
In order to give the film as much verisimilitude as possible, the majority of the cast came from the favelas including the City of God itself. From the initial two thousand that were auditioned a final hundred children and teenagers were chosen to be in the film. This final hundred were then put through an actors workshop and taught how to improvise in order to both draw on their personal experiences in the favelas and also to appear natural on camera. Because of both her work as documentarian and her experience in the favelas, Katia Lund worked closely with the children in order to get realistic performances from them. Whilst some of the methods they used to elicit a performance - especially with the younger children - might seem a little cruel, the results were remarkable. In one especially harrowing scene Li’l Ze shoots a young gang member in the foot and the heartbreaking response of the child was extracted by taking away his favourite teddy bear. Regardless of the ethics of this approach the film is filled with completely believable performances from totally inexperienced actors. Of particular note are Alexandre Rodrigues as the adult Rocket, Phellipe Haagensen as the cool and likable gangster Benny and Leandro Firmino da Hora as the terrifying Li’l Ze. The filmmakers couldn’t allow the young cast to return to the slums after shooting was complete so they set up help groups for them to ensure they had more promising futures and some even developed acting careers of their own.
There are very few professional actors in the film but the only major character to be played by one is Carrot (Matheus Nachtergaele) who is a rival drug dealer left alive by Li’l Ze due to his friendship with Benny. The part of Knockout Ned is played Seu Jorge who will be better known to Western audiences as one of the convicts in The Escapist or as the sailor singing acoustic versions of Bowie songs in Portuguese in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. For the part of Angelica the filmmakers chose Alice Braga who was the niece of Brazilian acting legend Sonia Braga and thus perfectly encapsulated the unobtainable object of Rocket’s affections. It is her character that convinces Benny to abandon his criminal life, the results of which will have devastating consequences during the last third of the film. Alice Braga has since appeared in a number of other films, including I Am Legend and Predators.
Whilst Lund worked with the cast, Fernando Meirelles concentrated on the more technical aspects, specifically the look and style of the film. He had a very specific colour scheme in mind for City of God, in order to help differentiate the three distinct periods over which the story takes place. For the parts that were set in the late Sixties he used warm colours to denote a period when things were better, before the violence had escalated. For the parts set during the Seventies he used a multi-coloured scheme and also shot a lot of hand held footage in order to capture the fun of that period as the use of cocaine combined with the advent of disco. The final section of the film, as well as the bookends take place in the early Eighties and for these scenes he used a desaturated colour scheme to represent Li’l Ze’s growing paranoia, the devastation of the gang wars and the increased levels of violence.
As well as the colour scheme, Meirelles also worked closely with cinematographer Cesar Charlone to ensure that the camera plunges down into the action, prowling the streets like one of the film’s feral children. It is this fluid and constantly moving camera that gives City of God much of its energy and really makes you feel as though you are there in the favelas with the characters. Another important aspect of the film’s style is Daniel Rezende’s frenetic editing which also helps give the film its furious energy. The cumulative result of these stylistic approaches is a film that bristles with violence, movement and tension which perfectly combines with the brutal realism of both the setting and the performances.
That’s not to say that City of God isn’t also very entertaining, in fact at times it is even funny, especially Rocket’s brief and hysterical foray into crime. As one would expect given the source novels collection of anecdotes there are plenty of humorous stories such as the adventures of the ‘Tender Trio’ during the section of the film set in the late Sixties. During the Seventies we see Li’l Ze and Benny’s rise to power, as they combine their ideas with courage and ruthlessness. Everyone likes Benny and his inherent good nature is the only thing keeping Li’l Ze’s psychotic one in check, without Benny the result is Li’l Ze’s humiliation of Knockout Ned and the appalling violence that follows.
When watching City of God you are reminded of earlier gangster films, including the Godfather movies with their multiple casts and decades spanning stories. However the film that it most resembles is Sergio Leone’s 1982 masterpiece Once Upon A Time In America, not only because both films cover three distinct time periods and use different actors to play the same character at different ages but also in its portrayal of children playing at being gangsters. You are constantly reminded of the early scenes in Leone’s film and of his young cast scheming and planning and dreaming of becoming powerful mobsters one day. City of God has a similar group of children, growing up too fast and taking on the mantle of adulthood before they have reached an emotional maturity. It is no coincidence that by the end of City of God it is an even younger gang that are on the rise and they too are planning their ascendency by making a list of all the people they plan to kill.
The film’s kinetic energy and fluid visual style has been very influential over the last few years and there’s no doubt that it was a big influence on Danny Boyle when he decided to make Slumdog Millionaire. Like Meirelles and Lund, Boyle uses actual children from the slums and like City of God his film shows the characters at different ages. Boyle also doesn’t shy away from showing the degradation and horror of his Indian slums whilst not forgetting that there are also moments of fun. However it is the camera work and editing in Slumdog Millionaire that most remind you of City of God, the same frenetic style, the same constant motion. In fact Boyle’s film seems to copy so much from City of God that it’s a wonder he didn’t have to put a disclaimer at the end.
The film was extremely popular when released in its home country in 2002 and proved as successful when picked up for worldwide distribution in 2003, making over $30 million at the box office. The critical reception was as impressive as its box office, with the film appearing in many top ten lists for 2003 and Fernando Meirelles being singled out as a talent to watch. The film received four Academy Award nominations for director, editor, screenplay and cinematography, although incredibly it wasn’t Brazil’s entry for best Foreign Language Film due to its having been released there the year before. There was some controversy over Meirelles nomination as Best Director when it was made public that Katia Lund had co-directed the movie and this certainly hurt his chances of winning. Whatever the controversy at the time there is no doubt that even today, nearly ten years later, the film retains its power and energy and reminds you that just because a film has a message that doesn’t mean it can’t be entertaining.
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