Watching a foreign film is like taking a trip to a foreign country. Foreign films take us to places we've rarely or never been and introduce us to languages we don't understand (thank heaven for subtitles). I've seen so many films shot on location in New York and Los Angeles that I almost feel like I live there (okay, I did live in Los Angeles for eight years). Watching a film from Mongolia or Romania or Spain is the next best thing to traveling to that country. One country I've never been to is Brazil where the crime drama CITY OF GOD (2002) is set, directed by Brazilian filmmaker Fernando Meirelles (with a co-director credit for Katia Lund).
Foreign films don't feel like Hollywood films. Besides the obvious language and locale differences, their pace and editing and style are usually all their own. Even when foreign directors have seen American movies (which most have) they instill their own set of artistic decisions. Early in my CrazyFilmGuy career when I did see a foreign film, I favored German films (I had taken German in junior high) by directors like Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders. I watched a few French films because they always have the prettiest actresses I had ever seen. In the last decade, the wild action films from Hong Kong by the likes of John Woo grabbed my attention.
But I need to branch out and see more films from other countries. A co-worker who loves foreign films asked if I had seen CITY OF GOD (CIDADE DE DEUS) and I had not. I had heard good things about it and had seen director Meirelles first American effort THE CONSTANT GARDNER (2005), based on the John LeCarre novel which was good. CITY OF GOD, set in the slums of Rio de Janeiro is about real events but parts of it seem like scenes from Martin Scorsese films. Instead of Italian or Irish gangsters, the hoodlums are young Brazilian children and teenagers. But they can be just as violent as adults.
CITY OF GOD, based on the novel by Paulo Lins and adapted to the screen by Braulio Mantovani is told from the point of view of Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), a good kid in the slums, trying to escape the perpetual life of crime that his friends have gravitated to. The film starts off in the 1960's as young Rocket's (Luis Otavio) older brother Goose (Renato de Souza) hangs out with two other hoods - Shaggy (Jonathan Haagensen) and Clipper (Jefechander Suplino). Their gang is known as the Tender Trio. Rocket's friends Lil' Dice (Douglas Silva) and Benny (Michel de Souza) are followers of the Tender Trio. Petty crime is their modus operandi but the Tender Trio want to strike it rich and get out of the slums so they plan a motel heist where prostitutes and their johns are the targets. The robbery goes terribly wrong as unbeknownst to the Tender Trio, Lil' Dice follows them and kills a bunch of the motel patrons after they have fled.
The film jumps to the 1970s as a teenage Rocket (Rodrigues) owns a camera and takes photos of his friends at the beach including the girl he secretly loves Angelica (Alice Braga). Rocket lives in Rio now as does Benny (Phellipe Haagensen) and Lil' Dice who has changed his name to Lil' Ze (Leandro Firmino). Rocket reveals that not only did Lil' Ze murder the hotel patrons but Ze killed his brother Goose as well. Lil' Ze and Bennie want to rule the drug distribution in Rio. Lil' Ze wipes out his enemies but Bennie is the cool gangster, choosing diplomacy over violence. Ze wants to kill another drug dealer named Carrot (Matheus Nachtergaele) but Bennie likes Carrot. For awhile, there's an uneasy alliance in the city.
Benny wins the heart of Angelica much to Rocket's chagrin. Rocket finds a supermarket job but it doesn't last long. Rocket even considers a life of crime but he's too nice and can't rob any one. Benny decides to retire from the drug business and plans to move to the country with Angelica. A big outdoor going away party is thrown for Benny. While Benny has fun, Lil' Ze attempts to dance with the girlfriend (Sabrina Rosa) of former soldier and sniper Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge). She rejects his advances and Ze rapes her. An assassin gunning for Ze at the party accidentally shoots Benny. The truce between drug gangs is broken as Knockout Ned joins Carrot's gang in an effort to avenge his girlfriend's brutal attack. A turf war erupts on the streets of Rio.
Rocket reacquires his camera. Ze asks him to take some photographs of him and his gang. Rocket joins a newspaper and asks to get his photographs developed by the staff photographer. Rocket's photos end up on the front page of the newspaper. Rocket fears Ze will be angry that the photos were published but Ze loves the publicity. As the police hunt for Ze and his gang, Rocket follows the action and ends up photographing both police corruption and the bloody end of Lil 'Ze.
The opening scene in CITY OF GOD is symbolic of Rocket's predicament. Lil' Ze and his gang prepare to kill a couple of chickens for lunch. They chop the head off of one of birds but the second chicken escapes. Ze and his gang chase the chicken through the streets. Rocket is that second chicken, looking to escape a dead end future, running from Ze, Carrot, and the rest of the drug dealers of Rio. His ticket out is his camera and his access to all the Rio gangs. If he can stay alive and not lose his head, Rocket might have a career as a news photographer and a way out of the slums.
Director Meirelles shows impressive command of his craft as a fairly new director at the time. With so many characters to deal with in the film, Meirelles and writer Mantovani thankfully give in the American release easy to remember names like Carrot and Knockout Ned and Rocket to help the audience keep track of the multitude of characters. But I do think the influence of Martin Scorsese films permeates throughout out the CITY OF GOD. Early on, Rocket narrates a montage that shows how drugs are distributed in Rio, giving the audience a lot of information in a short amount of time, something Scorsese did brilliantly in GOOD FELLAS (1990) and CASINO (1995). Meirelles also uses a Scorsese technique of a slow continuous dissolve with a stationary camera in an apartment, showing over time the various drug dealers and tenants who had come and gone. I had first seen Scorsese use that technique in AFTER HOURS (1985) just to show actor Griffin Dunne walking up a long set of stairs.
Ironically, Scorsese's THE GANGS OF NEW YORK and CITY OF GOD both came out in 2002 and were both released by Miramax. Both films deal with gangs and have a charismatic villain who kills a loved one of the protagonist. In GANGS, Leonard DiCaprio's Vallone sees Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis) as a father figure but eventually seeks vengeance for Bill killing his father. In CITY OF GOD, Rocket is too nice and non-violent to confront Lil 'Ze for killing his brother. Ultimately, Rocket unwittingly brings Lil 'Ze down by taking his picture which feeds Ze's ego and makes Ze think he's invincible.
Another scene in CITY OF GOD has a Quentin Tarantino influence. Tarantino films often have a brief, unexpected burst of violence. In GOD, a gang of kids with guns known as the Runts, cause havoc to both Ze and Carrot. The Runts are all about anarchy, as one would imagine kids with guns might be. The Runts don't respect the rules of gang land. Lil' Ze corners a few of the Runt members and forces one of the Runts to choose another Runt to shoot and kill, to set an example that Ze is the boss. It's an excruciating scene but expertly done.
But CITY OF GOD has its own Brazilian moments that transcend any Hollywood film. Foreign filmmakers can show America a thing or two about how to craft a film. The murder of Benny is a masterful set piece during a big outdoor street party, with pulsating music and strobe lighting that enhance the suspense and tension as Lil' Ze's anger reaches a boiling point. It's carnival but at its most dangerous. We want Benny to get out of there, to go move to a farm with Angelica. But he's oblivious to the danger, his friendship with Lil' Ze blinding him to his friend's erratic and violent tendencies that bring death to those around him.
CITY OF GOD is an example of fine filmmaking that is done all around the world. Director Meirelles crafted a film that has hints of American crime drama influences yet captures a time and place in Rio de Janeiro that only a filmmaker from his own country could make. With a relatively cast of unknowns and filming in one of the most dangerous areas in the world, CITY OF GOD is a trip worth taking.