Empire - February 2015

The Kids Are Not All Right

by Simon Braund | Empire

WITH THE SUNNY EUPHORIA of the World Cup slowly fading from memory, revisiting Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund’s brutal debut feature is a sobering experience.

The name Rio de Janeiro invariably conjures postcard images of Sugarloaf mountain and the Christ statue of Corcovado gazing benignly down on the city’s sweeping bay and endless stretches of golden sand, teeming with beautiful people sipping pisco sours and playing volley-soccer to a samba beat while the lilting strains of Astrid Gilberto seep from the sound systems. The reality is not so far from the cliché. Rio is, without doubt, one of the most beguiling cities on Earth. But there is a dark side, and it’s Rio’s notorious favela, Cidade de Deus, light-years from the fleshpots of Ipanema and Copacabana, that is the setting for Meirelles and Lund’s film — a film that thunders across the screen, grabbing your attention like the business end of a .38 Magnum.

Based on the acclaimed, semi-autobiographical novel by Paulo Lins, City Of God spans the years from the late 1960s to the early ’80s and the changes wrought on the favela and the people who live there. The era was one of tumultuous change for Cidade de Deus, with the escalating spiral of violent crime and dire poverty transforming conditions from harsh to downright hellish.

In essence, City Of God is a crime drama that follows a familiar pattern — ghetto kids, drawn into a life of crime, start out small but become ever more ruthless as the years pass, the stakes get higher and friendships and families are ripped apart by the never-ending cycle of murder and retribution. In focusing on the rise to power of drug lord Li’l Zé (Leandro Firmino) and his homeboy Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), whose love of photography is, he hopes, his ticket out of the City, it charts the catastrophic effect of the drug trade on Cidade de Deus and the bloody street wars, waged by rival cartels, that it spawned. That’s the big picture. What brings it to life are the vividly drawn portraits of the people within it.

It would be ridiculous, of course, to assert that any film, no matter how well made or acted, could give you a real sense of what it’s like to live in an environment as hostile, chaotic and neglected as Cidade de Deus, but City Of God comes as close as you’ll ever get. And that is largely down to the efforts of a cast made up not of professional, or even aspiring amateur, actors but of teenagers and young people who grew up in Rio’s favelas, some of them in Cidade de Deus itself. Meirelles’s decision to use non-actors was based on two factors: firstly, there were virtually no professional black actors available. “Today,” he said in a 2012 interview, “I can open a casting call and have 500 black actors, but just 10 years ago this possibility did not exist. In Brazil there were three or four young black actors.” Secondly, he was reluctant to recruit those who were available since they didn’t have the life experience he was eager to draw on. In the end, out of a hundred or so chosen, only Matheus Nachtergaele (who plays Carrot) had any background as an actor. Meirelles cast him after seeing him in a play. He was somewhat irked when, before production began, Nachtergaele let him down by becoming a huge star in the 2000 movie A Dog’s Will.

Hard to watch in places, but it is impossible to take your eyes off it.

Rather than introduce his untrained cast to traditional acting techniques, Meirelles ran workshops at which they were encouraged to improvise real-life scenarios: robberies, fi ghts, gun battles and the like. Hailing from some of the meanest streets in South America, they’d probably seen enough of that kind of thing already. Whatever the case, it’s the astonishingly natural performances that lend City Of God its raw authenticity.

It was not, as is often assumed, shot in Cidade de Deus itself; not even Meirelles was prepared to risk that. It was, however, filmed in a nearby, less dangerous neighbourhood, a fact which, along with its non-professional cast, would more often than not point to an exercise in neo-realism. In fact, it is intensely cinematic, employing hyperactive camera moves, hand-held pans and crash zooms. Machine-gun cutting keeps the narrative hurtling forward with the wild energy of a runaway train. As has been said before, City Of God may be hard to watch in places, but it is impossible to take your eyes off it.

In October 2013, the documentary City Of God — 10 Years Later premiered at the Rio de Janeiro fi lm festival. Directed by Cavi Borges and Luciano Vidigal, it was made up of background footage from the film and interviews with the cast and crew. Some of them have gone on to great success following City Of God’s multi-Oscar-nominated glory. Alice Braga (who plays Angélica) appeared in David Mamet’s Redbelt, in I Am Legend with Will Smith and opposite Matt Damon in last year’s Elysium. Alexandre Rodrigues has starred in a string of Brazilian TV shows, including City Of Men, a spin-off of City Of God. Most amazing of all is Seu Jorge (Knockout Ned). Best known to non-Latin audiences for his Portuguese-language covers of David Bowie songs in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, he has continued to act and now enjoys a stadium-fi lling musical career. His album Carolina became an international hit in 2003.

Others have not been so lucky. Alongside the uplifting rags-to-riches tales are stories of  hardship, poverty and a drift back into crime. As for Cidade de Deus, although it is still blighted by the drug trade, conditions have improved markedly, with new emphasis on building infrastructure and improving education. Thanks to the 2010 deployment of a Police Pacification Unit, arrests are up 550 per cent, with homicides down 83 per cent.It even has its own currency, the CDD, which is currently indexed at roughly 20 per cent higher than the Brazilian real.

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