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SAIS Review 23.2 (2003) 233-238

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City of God, City of Man

Marcio Siwi

City of God (Cidade de Deus), 135 min., in Portuguese, with English subtitles. Directed by Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund, produced by Andrea Barata Ribeiro and Mauricio Andrade Ramos, 2002.

A film's opening scene, if done well, leaves the viewer with an en during image (Orson Welles's Touch of Evil, for example) and also sets the tone for the interaction between the viewer and the film. City of God, the internationally acclaimed recent Brazilian film co-directed by Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund, successfully accomplishes both. From one brutally memorable scene to the next (which some of us try hard to forget, to no avail), City of God keeps viewers anxious and startled for 2 hours and 15 minutes, and then some.

The film opens with a brief and spasmodic montage of a knife being sharpened against a black granite surface, emitting an eerie slashing sound of metal against stone. A few seconds later, a half-plucked chicken, foreseeing its fate, refuses to stay for lunch. With an instinctive will to live, the bird frees itself from the makeshift leash loosely tied to its foot and manages to upset the entire order of the feast. What follows is a chaotic chicken chase involving a bunch of reckless, gun-shooting, marginalized youths to the accompaniment of rhythmic samba music and a voice screaming endlessly—pega a galinha (grab that chicken).

The rushing edits of the chase finally give way and the commotion seems to subside. The viewer is given a chance to breathe—but only for a short while. Soon we are gazing nervously at the chicken and a young man with a camera, Busca-pé, or Rocket, the narrator and hero of the story who is trapped between an army of menacing gun-obsessed characters on one side and a number of questionable law enforcement officers on the other. As soon as Rocket realizes the [End Page 233] compromising situation he is in, a Matrix-inspired 360 degree revolving shot lapses some fifteen to twenty years back to a sepia colored scene of a soccer match. Rocket has been scored against and is being aggressively reprimanded by Dadinho, or Lil' Dice, the cherubic psychopath villain of the story.

The film has barely begun, and although it has yet to reveal its most tender and disturbing secrets, the viewer is already completely transfixed by this magnificently composed, tumultuous, and brutally honest story of life, love, avarice, revenge, hope, and death inside the notorious, drug-infested Rio de Janeiro favela (slum) known as "City of God."

In a well-conceived non-linear narrative, City of God tells the story of Rocket, a young Afro-Brazilian growing up in treacherous surroundings, who, through dedication, passion, and a stroke of luck, manages to become a promising photojournalist. City of God depicts the unforgiving, corrupting force of the almighty drug trade in Brazil—which employs more than 100,000 children. It is a film of moral ambiguities in which otherwise well-intentioned and respectable individuals find themselves faced with the most wrenching and nauseating choices. The film, which examines the historical development of the favela and its seemingly unending road to perdition, also shows that favelas are far more heterogeneous communities than first meets the eye, producing a myriad of individuals with the most different characteristics—sensible artistic sorts as well as hardened yet charming criminals, or malandros.

There is, of course, not only Rocket and Lil' Dice, aka Zé Pequeno, or Lil' Ze, but also Bené, Lil' Ze's lifelong friend, alter-ego, and the film's most developed character; Galinha, or Knockout Ned, a self-assured man who embarks upon a life of crime to avenge the rape of his girlfriend and his brother's death; Cenoura, or Carrot, a drug dealer and Lil' Ze's principal enemy; Thiago, the playboy who joins Lil' Ze to feed his cocaine addiction; Angelica, Bené's attractive girlfriend; Paraíba, a bar owner who murders his wife; and Filé com Fritas, or Steak...