Fernando Meirelles’ compelling, uncompromising and, frankly, brutal, drama City of God is now thirteen years old. Age has no relevance in the case of features such as these. As relevant and heady today as it was in 2002, Meirelles’ exploration of Rio De Janeiro’s stoic Favela’s holds as much importance in 2015 as it did in the early 2000’s. Full to the brim with blatant violence and uncomfortable scenes of adolescent malevolence, City of God comes under many a critics ‘One to watch’, and serves as repeat watching despite its ability to stay with its viewer. Less of a review, and more of an appreciation piece, here, I delve into why Meirelles’ film of poverty, love and gang warfare should be watched by everyone who considers themselves to be a film aficionado.
Cidade de Deus took its inspiration from two sources. One, a kind of semi-autobiographical novel by escapee of the Favela’s Paulo Lins. Two, a documentary released prior to Meirelles film that focused on the ongoing battle between the residents of the Brazilian ghettos, and the city police who came charging into this separate world with a handful of brutality at the end of the 20th century. Merielle’s and co-director Katia Lund took much interest from the latter, and felt they needed to bring this big city, with its dancing, parades – and gun-filled, drug-fulled Favela’s – to the forefront of Western culture. And that, they did.
Casting a host of never-heard-of actors (as well as one or two familiar Latin faces) the pair brought the terrifyingly real narrative of one Favela in Rio to the screens of millions. No longer a secret, these urban living spaces gripped a nation – and this fascination with the civilians who happily (and some, not so happily) call this place home, has continued on. Just two years ago City of God – 10 Years Later was released, charting the lives of several of Meirelle’s actors. Three years ago saw a three part documentary, aired on the BBC, which followed an array of families living in contemporary Brazil. Together, Lund, Lins and Meirelles successfully made the Favela’s a talking point, opening Westerners eyes to the tough and troubled world of Rio’s hilltop housing estate.
Despite the level of neo-realism that accompanies the film – including a visceral and intense colour palette of burnt oranges and yellows, and an in-your-face ability to reiterate this idea that nothing, and no one, is safe – City of God manages to juxtapose a level of cinematic glory with documentary fervor that keeps events seemingly real, and the viewer constantly unsure of what might happen next. The unexpected nature of a number of incidents, including that hand or foot scene, and a heartbreaking goodbye to Bene (Phellipe Haagensen) lend to the consistent realism in which Lund and Meirelle’s managed to create with this triumphant foreign feature.
Braulio Mantovani writes with an effective simplicity; the lives of five or six separate characters – all equally important in their own right – come together, not one underdeveloped and not one underwritten. From the rise and fall of psychopath and drug lord Li’l Ze, to the heartbreak and woes of good guy turned vigilante (of sorts) Knockout Ned, Mantovani gives each resident of Rio’s Favela, each character within Lund and Meirrelle’s film, their chance to dictate to the audience how their environment has shaped them – for better, or more frequently, for worse.
Images of children carrying and shooting guns, a symbolic chicken running for its life and a tale of triumph for protagonist Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues) are just minor details in a 130 minute film that, some thirteen years later, add up to firmly settle Cidade de Deus into the realms of culturally important, and critically applauded cinema.