The top 5 barrels on like an unstoppable force and we reach my second-best film, Fernando Meirelles’ 2002 epic City of God (or Cidade de Deus to give it its Portuguese title). A superb achievement on many levels and the best foreign-language film I’ve yet seen, it’s a staggering, powerful movie that draws you into the centre of Rio de Janeiro’s slums and leaves you feeling shocked, moved and slightly disoriented.
Based in the ‘City of God’ (the name given to a housing project in Rio’s slums), this is a movie whose ambition equals its achievement. Director Meirelles grew up in these same areas and witnessed first-hand the copious drug-dealing and pointless murder that are as normal as buying a loaf of bread in this lawless society. The opening segment of the movie show a Robin Hood-like group of friends (the ‘Tender Trio’) robbing local businesses and divvying up the spoils to the area’s poor inhabitants, but things quickly turn south in sanguine fashion and the main bulk of the film begins.
The core of the film follows the dual stories of Buscapé (Rocket in English, played by Alexandre Rodrigues) and Zé Pequeno (Li’l Zé, played by Leandro Firmino de Hora). Rocket’s prized possession is his camera and he is trying to get out of the slums by becoming a photographer: he earns a non-paying job at a newspaper where his depictions of the slums’ violence and photos of Zé’s gang are put in the paper, unbeknownst to him. Zé, however, has no such grand plans. Instead, he chooses to enter the drug trade, and spends the movie gradually ascending the ranks until he runs most of the slum himself while in his mid-20s. However, the murder of the only person keeping all parties from killing each other prompts a huge escalation in violence, as children under 10 form the bulk of two street armies out to kill the other: the factions of Zé and Seu Jorge’s Knockout Ned.
The sheer brutality of the picture is what struck me on first viewing, as Meirelles in a Tarantino-esque manner splits the movie up into several stories, from the beginning of Zé’s bloodthirst during a robbery with the Tender Trio to how Knockout Ned goes from an average guy to a street general. Murder is a standard practice for Zé, and the brutal initiations he forces his child soldiers to endure are painful to watch: a young boy called ‘Steakandfries’ is forced to shoot a toddler to gain entrance into Zé’s crew. City of God is unflinching in its depiction of a huge criminal society defined only by drugs and violence.
Rodrigues’ Rocket is a wonderful and very sympathetic character: he’s one of the only people involved in neither the drug trade nor the slum’s civil war, and one of few who try to escape the slum without recourse to violence. Meanwhile, Firmino de Hora’s Zé is a brilliantly callous creation who laughs off murder and seems to revel in the chaotic environment his war with Knockout Ned has created. These two excellent performances drive the entire movie, and it’s very hard to believe that these were genuine slum inhabitants before Meirelles began filming. The cast is almost entirely amateur, as Meirelles insisted on having actual City of God residents fill the parts to properly recreate what the place was like in the 80s (when the film is set). The realism which this bold move creates improves the movie greatly, and it would be hard to pick out the trained and untrained actors as the performances are all superb. Every child we see seems hardened by the City’s ultraviolent environment, and when they sign up to Ned or Zé’s gang, they show no fear or reticence.
Meirelles’ film is a triumph of filmmaking at its most guerilla; it’s a high-concept, low-budget affair which does not compromise quality for cheapness or complexity for facility. It’s a movie which sacrifices nothing and shows as true-to-life a portrait of a neglected society as it would seem possible to create. The chases (and there are many) are cleverly shot from the roofs of corrugated iron houses or the street-level views of the characters themselves, and Meirelles’ ingenious yet unorthodox methods do wonders for a film that could simply be an unartistic, hyperviolent sideshow. Instead, it’s a beautiful, troubling and ultimately life-affirming movie which shows how possible it is to drag yourself up by the bootstraps without using intimidation or violence, something Rocket, the film’s actors and Meirelles himself all strove to do. Tying together complex stories better than any other modern director has managed (Tarantino included), Meirelles has created an instant classic and this will surely be canonized as the best Brazilian movie of all time. Truly unforgettable.