Sunday, December 04, 2005

Movie Review: "City of God" (Cidade de Deus)

Gail picked this Brazilian film for our Netflix queue, based on its success at the Toronto film festival and other accolades; and I'm sure she was intrigued by the narrator/protagonist, who is a photographer of sorts. The title refers to a government-created area of low-income housing in Rio de Janeiro; a favela, or slum at the time of the story (1960s - late 1970s). The wealthy citizens and luxury hotels of Rio cannot brook living alongside the urban poor, so they are herded into a sprawling shanty community with little or no amenities, social services or police protection. Inevitably the ghetto becomes a place of desperation, massive drug trafficking and violent crime - even small children go armed with handguns, and lives are lost seemingly every hour of the day.

In this frightening place lives Busca-Pé (nicknamed "Rocket") a young boy who has no wish to be a thug or criminal, nor to toil away at menial work that will never lift him from poverty. He finds that he has a natural eye for photography and begins to document the world around him; but the violence is so pervasive that it allows virtually no hope of being anything but criminal or victim.

The film wasn't exactly what we anticipated; it is overwhelmingly brutal, difficult to watch at times, although artfully shot and edited. The pace is relentless and the bullets fly; no one is spared, no place is safe, which may be the central theme. Finer emotions and motivations are hardly present, including Rocket's pursuit of photography - various gangs of thugs struggle for power, guns and drugs. In a fascinating hour-long DVD extra, the truth of the favelas is revealed through interviews and news clips; the movie, though based on a novel, is an accurate picture of this cruel place.

I couldn't watch it again, but it does offer an honest portrayal of human predation and violence; the depths of cruelty that hopelessness and poverty can breed. (And on an odd note, the characters in the movie have some truly great nicknames: Li'l Zé, Shaggy, Carrot, Knockout Ned, Clipper...)