A Matter of Choice

in 24th International Festival of New Latin American Cinema

by Luciano Trigo

I think that one of the messages of “City of God” is that, even if you live in Hell, life is not a matter of chance, but a matter of choice. The film follows the development of organized crime and traffic dealing in a poor community in Rio de Janeiro, from the innocent 60s to the desperate and violent 80s, narrated by a local teenager, who uses his passion for photography to avoid getting caught up in a gang warfare.

Ignored by authorities and by Brazilian large middle classes, who live just yards away from it, the favelas constitute a very delicate and explosive social issue. It has become a paradise for cruel drug lords and perverse child soldiers, with no sense of good and evil. In one of the most impressive scenes, a boy is urged to kill, in order to prove his loyalty to the gang and punish two children for robbing slum dwellers. It’s indeed a parallel society, with its own rules and codes, supported by a corrupted police and by the increasing consumption of cocaine in the city. The official State has no longer control over these areas.

Director Fernando Meirelles avoids any kind of moralizing or condoning of violence. The way he follows, almost clinically, the lives of brutal trafficker Zé Pequeno (Leandro Firmino da Hora) and wannabe photographer Buscapé (Alexandre Rodrigues), who manages to avoid a life of crime, is very convincing. Both grow up in the same violent environment, but each of them makes different choices. It’s a film about redemption, and its portrayal of Brazilian social exclusion and inequality is truly impressive. Unfortunately, nothing has changed: Cidade de Deus is still one of the most dangerous places in Rio de Janeiro and seems to be condemned to endless violence.

“City of God” has amazing drive and energy. The bloody machine-gun battles between rival gangs are astonishing, reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino’s first films. In fact, Meirelles borrows from a lot of directors, but without losing his stylistic originality. From the first scene on, the spectator is in for a ride. “City of God” is tense, shocking and oppressively violent, but also very entertaining. On the other hand, it’s totally un-American: it has no heroes and no central character (the protagonist is a place, not a person). The cast of youths was plucked from Rio’s slums as part of a community, non-professional acting project, “Nós do Morro”: people who really live and grow in the shadow of the Brazilian State. They are all surprisingly convincing in their roles, deserving the collective award of best actors which was given to them in Havana.

Among many other reasons, that’s why “City of God” was the most talked-about Brazilian film of 2002, and that’s why it won the main awards at the Havana Festival.