Fans of the cinema of Walter Salles (Central Station) will have had a cinematic initiation into the reality of Brazil's poor communities. But where only half of the action in Midnight, the 1998 film co-directed by Salles, took viewers into the favelas (slums) of Rio De Janeiro, City Of God (which Salles co-produced) never leaves them. It's entire narrative is saturated with the desperation and violence of Brazil's disenfranchised underclass.
Between 1986 and 1996, writer Paolo Lins researched the drug trade within the ironically named Cidade De Dues (City Of God), a 1960s housing project where he grew up. The novel, and the fact it was based in, was potent raw material for a film. Screenwriter Bráulio Mantovani, director Fernando Meirelles and co-director Katia Lund have done a remarkable job of bringing this marginalised history and culture of violence to the screen. Meirelles talks of "a movie which was true to the book: filmed from the inside of the favela out." To achieve this fidelity, the filmmakers auditioned 2,000 kids from the favelas, took 200 on to acting workshops, then improvised the scenes, free of marks, continuity control or any of the formal filmmaking strictures.
Although the subject of the film is Cidade De Dues itself, the narrative is structured around Rocket, or Buscapé in the Portuguese (played by Luis Otavio as a kid in the 1960s, by Alexandre Rodrigues in the film's 1970s and 1980s segments). A 1960s slum kid, he observes his friends and peers opting for the gun-obsessed life of crime. As young Li'l Dice, or Dadinho, (Douglas Silva) says, "We need to rob some rich guy's house, it's the only way out of here." Rocket, however, hangs back from the endemic violence the other kids accept so readily. As his older brother tells him shortly before being shot dead by Li'l Dice, "I'm a hood 'cos I've got no brain. But you're smart. You should study." Despite the lack of opportunities, Rocket aspires to be a photographer.
In the 1970s, Li'l Dice has become Li'l Zé (Leandro Firmino Da Hora), a remorseless hood who kills his way to the top of the heap by murdering all the drug gang leaders ("At 18, he was the most respected hood in Rio De Janero"). Although Rocket wants to avenge his brother, he also wants to stay out of trouble. Amazingly, his career as a journalist is kicked off by accident when Zé forces him to photograph him and his gang armed to the teeth and the picture ends up on the front of the paper. Zé's violent aspirations are spinning out of control, and when he rapes the girlfriend of bus-fare collector and ex-soldier Knockout Ned (Jorge), and kills his brother and uncle, the previously peaceable Ned joins up with gangster Carrot (Matheus Nachtergaele) and goes on the warpath. Every act of vengeance generates another however, and soon the favela is a war-zone.
With its epic, three time period story of young men making their way, violently, in a life of crime, City Of God is like a Brazilian underclass GoodFellas. But with its quintessential new-Latin-cinema energy, dynamic shooting style and complex structure of interconnected stories, it's also comparable to the Mexican Amores Perros. Although the film is too heavily reliant on voice-over from Rocket ("The ghetto had been a purgatory, now it was a hell"), otherwise it is a fascinating, powerful film, full up with angry power about the disgraceful state of Brazil urban poverty, and how it simply creates a culture of desperate greed and cyclical violence.