City of God
Directed by Fernando Meirelles
Written by Braulio Mantovani from the novel by Paolo Lins
With Alexandre Rodriques, Seu Jorge, Leandro Firmina da Hora, Phellipe Haagensen


City of God

Most good films, like most good novels, take us into a world that we acknowledge as fiction; their people are real but in the literal sense their lives are not. We like them that way because the fiction lets us deal with any pain, loss, hope, trauma or tragedy by keeping it at the distance that we hold all art - just a bit too far away to pierce our hearts.

But the Brazilian filmmaker Fernando Meirelles, working from a script by Braulio Mantovani (and the novel by Paulo Lins), has created a fiction that seems to be as true as any documentary ever could be. His story is about the child gangs of the 'city of god,' a favela or slum in Rio de Janeiro - a part of the city that tourists never see. The film starts in the 1960s and ends in the 1980s, and tells a three-part story. The first is of the narrator, called Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), and his boyhood 'Tender Trio.' Already touched by the violence around them, they have no way out of the favela except by death or a (secular) miracle, and miracles are hard to come by.

By the 1970s, the gangs are led by teenagers, because hardly anyone survives to adulthood. Even worse, there is another, younger generation of boys - aged 8, 9, 10 - who are ready to step in whenever the teenagers falter. "I smoke, I snort, I've killed and robbed," says one boy. "I'm a man." Guns are given out like party favors. One child who's in the wrong place at the wrong time is told by the gang leader to choose between being shot in the hand or the foot. "And don't limp!" says the leader.

Who is this leader? He's Li'l Zé (Leandro Firmina de Hora), a pathological killer who controls the pot and crack sales in the city of god, has an army of killers and robbers to do his bidding, and fights his rival Carrot for total control. As we come to part three, the 1980s, Rocket - who has always wanted to be a photographer, gets a (stolen) camera and a job delivering papers for a daily. But Li'l Zé wants him to be the gang's photographer, and when by a mixup his photos appear on the front page, Rocket says, "I'm dead." But he's wrong; the gang loves seeing themselves there, in part because they are illiterate and the world of letters and words is beyond them.

The entire film, shot in digital video by Cesar Charlone under Meirelles' direction, has the feel of combat footage - and certainly this is a perpetual war - with fast cuts, some stop-motion, some freeze-frames - but nothing that seems out of place or contrived. We watch these boys grow from soccer players into killers; the question of conscience, or even perspective, does not come up for most of them. Even Rocket, who does get out, has no moral statement to make. He shoots a sequence in which a gang leader, caught by the police, pays them off in cash and then is coldly shot. A cop says, "They'll think the gangs did it." The paper runs the photos.

In some ways "City of God" can be compared to "The Battle of Algiers," also a fiction film about a real event, shot as though it were a documentary. In that film the story follows step by step, as though by combat camera, the growth of the Algerian guerrilla movement that ultimately ousted the French from their country. Both films are riveting, both should be essential viewing.