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I have recently seen several Brazilian movies and i have been amazed by the depth of humanistic understanding they displayed when showing acute violence and despair. They all provide a lesson on humanity at its worse, and the effects of poverty, human misery, and horrendous environments that only emphasize the worst parts in all of us. Carandiru was about one of the worst prison massacre to take place in Brazil's history and teach us about the effects of over-crowded prisons, desperate individuals trying to survive each day, and ultimately, government repression gone insane. Madame Sata, although a failed movie, showed us a slice of petty crimes and homosexuality in Rio De Janeiro's slums in the early 1930's. City Of God focuses on the criminal systems that organized around drug trade in the 70's in one of Brazil's most infamous suburbs, and gives us a peak into the lives of the leading gangsters in that place and time.
I believe that drugs should be a government business, levying taxes, and made available to whoever wants them. Of course, you'd want to make it more difficult to get than cigarettes, and alcohol control might serve as a model of the types of things that can be done. Many cities or states in the US and Canada for instance have very strong policies towards alcohol with systems of enforcement and controlled reseller networks that could be reused. I don't buy the argument that as soon as you legalize drugs, most people will want to try them and life as we know it will spin out of control. Anything would be better than the current status quo and the violence and criminal organizations that gravitate around drugs. If you have any doubt about this, then City Of God, and the amazing accompanying documentary on the DVD are for you.
The movie focuses on the lives of 3 kids growing up in the City Of God, and taking quite different paths in life. The City of God (Cidade de Deus) is a housing project built in the 1960's in the suburbs of Rio. Lil'Ze and Bene are two young kids who witness on a daily basis countless acts of violence from the gangs around and are quite mesmerized by the apparent power that those men with guns hold on each other. They decide that they want in and begin a life of violent crimes. The story focuses on the duo's rise to become the top gangsters in what can be best described as the toughest place in the world. By the late 70's, they owned the City Of God and controlled most of the drug trade and related crimes there. Lil'Ze in particular is the top boss and displays an uncanny sense of survival through swift and decisive (and violent) actions to wipe out his adversaries: he strikes even before his adversaries have a thought about toppling him. By the early 80's, there are only two gangs left, and that's when things really got out of control.
The third kid is Rocket, too frail and scared to have any gangster aspirations, but way too smart to be content with just living through the days in the slums. As he grows up, he quickly discovers that he has a talent: he sees the details of everyday life and has a keen eye to capture incredible moments. First, he starts with cheap cameras, but eventually, he gets himself a good cameras and starts documenting the violent life of the City Of God. He studies hard and wants to become a photo-journalist. By chance, one day, he takes a picture of Lil'Ze, Bene and their gangs which accidentally gets printed in a major newspaper for which he works as a delivery boy (he used the newspaper's lab to develop his films). Scared shitless at first, he is accepted by the gangs as their photographers, and by the newspaper staff as a talented photographer who can go places where no one else can go, and who knows people no one else can get close to.
The movie is absolutely amazing and contains many scenes that will make you cringe due to their extreme violence and realism. A scene in particular was hard to watch, even for me: seeing 8 year olds massacring each other in gang-related shoot-outs is so tragic and saddening. The richness of the characters presented, the epic structure of the story and the expanse of time and events it covers, and the overall art direction are nothing short of phenomenal. For 2h and 15 minutes, you will be immersed in this most realistic setting and feel like you were given the chance to observe a piece of history from up close, without ever getting in the way of danger. I felt the immersion to be so strong that i was left somewhat stunned at the end and let the entire credits roll before getting up from my couch.
Most interesting though is how the movie is really about Lil'Ze and his friend Bene, but narrated from the point of view of Rocket. Although peripheral to the main story line of the movie that focuses on Lil'Ze and Bene, it's Rocket's narration, insights and detailed accounts of the life around him that gives us a unique understanding of the complicated layers and humanity of a world seemingly condemned to endless violence. This triangular setup is fairly well acknowledged as a powerful narrative device and i haven't seen it so well utilized as it has been in this movie. The movie's strength and power hits you first, but with the third party, you get some distance to appreciate what you are seeing and the effect it has on you, because those effects are the same as those that Rocket feels and describes.
The cast is absolutely amazing, the cinematography is simply amazing. The editing, showing off the narrative structure of the movie, is first rate. In fact, everything was simply amazing, except maybe for the music. I was disappointed not to get a better feel of Brazilian music as it was developing through the 70's. Those gangsters partied a lot, and it seems that music was an important part of their lives, but the film did not focus on that aspect much. A lot of top Brazilian music came up from the slums of Sao Paulo and Rio.
This is a movie that completely transported me to another world and time. I felt for over 2 hours like i was there, like an invisible spirit, witnessing the lives and deaths of all those characters. For me, film is as much a cultural experience as it is a learning experience and entertainment, so i was quite happy here. The impact was so strong on me that i kept feeling so thankful to be who i am, educated, living in an ordered society, having a job that i am impassioned about, and not have to worry about stray bullets on my way to my morning pee. Compared to my life, those characters live in pure hell. This feeling was only reinforced when i watched the documentary on the DVD. If you watch this movie, you must set an additional 1h aside to watch the documentary. This is an indispensable complement to understand the criminal society in Brazil today, where it came from, how drug trade built it up and how gangsters, law enforcement agents, and the general population live side by side in this hellish place. The documentary is very detailed, with enlightening testimonies from police officers, the police commissioner (who displays quite an incredibly philosophical yet lucid and concrete view on the world he has the mission to police) and finally regular folks caught in the cross-fire, as well as the economic and social implications of living in such a place. Highly recommended.
- Laurent Hasson