This electrifying picture is part tender coming-of-age film and part gang-warfare epic from the Brazilian slum, or favela, told from the viewpoint of the children who manage to be both its underclass and its criminal overlords. It’s a movie with all the dials cranked up to 11, an overwhelming, intoxicating assault on the senses, and a thriller so tense that you might have the red seat plush in front of you – or even some unfortunate’s hair – gripped in both fists.
Amores Perros – increasingly the touchstone of the Latin new wave – began with a car chase and a dead animal. Director Fernando Meirelles’s City of God, co-produced under the aegis of Walter Salles, has something similar, but invests his images with more overtly mythic qualities, irresistibly potent from the very beginning. A swaggering gangster is about to slaughter a chicken in the middle of the favela; it escapes, and there is a hilarious but still oddly gripping chase sequence as the bird makes its bid for freedom.
As it exits an alley and scampers into the nearest the place has to a main thoroughfare, the chicken, with a hundred bullets and cleavers with its name on it, finds itself face to face with the movie’s leading character, 18-year-old Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), who has every reason to think he is going to be murdered. Behind Rocket appear a number of law-enforcement officers in armoured vehicles making one of their periodic terrified and ineffective forays into the ‘hood; in front of him, the gangster and his courtiers all produce weapons. A wacky, black-comic interlude has morphed with appalling speed into a potential bloodbath.
The sacrificial purpose of the chicken conveys with the force of a blunt instrument how cheap life has come to be in the ghetto, and how victimhood and aggression have become fused together. The wiseguys, their cowering subordinates, their stoic womenfolk and the dead bodies around them are all chickens – and they are mostly all children.
Never before have criminals looked so young: pre-pubescent, in fact. The City of God is like one vast, dysfunctional family, neighbours from hell with no neighbours, with no parents or concerned adults. It is a cross between an orphanage and an abattoir.
The movie tells the story of this slum, a grim housing project for the poor, from the late 1960s to the early 1980s; it tracks the story of both Rocket, a would-be press photographer (and a character whose purpose is probably to ventriloquise the sensibility of Paulo Lins, on whose novel the film is based), and Li’l Dice, who follows his gangster vocation with the passionate severity of a monk – the latter renaming himself, having notionally grown to man’s estate, as Li’l Ze (Leandro Firmino da Hora).
Crime and football are traditionally the ways out of the ghetto, and Meirelles raises this second option only to obliterate it. A bunch of kids gather round to play keepy-uppy; but this is abandoned when three hoodlums rush on to the pitch, seeking refuge from the police – and football, the commodity in which Brazil is an unquestioned superpower, is never mentioned again. What is left is the great game of violence, of intimidation and rape, of abject gang loyalty for children for whom the ties of family, church or nationhood are meaningless jokes: seething with rage, resentment and collectively enacting one continuous, unending scattered act of pre-emptive revenge.
The favela known as the City of God has been described as the film’s chief “character”, and as a location it looks unglamorously real in a way that cannot be approximated by set design. There are some scenes at the beach, but the familiar world of Rio is light years away. At first glance, the dreary rows of jerry-built sheds in the middle of nowhere look very much like sheds for factory-farmed animals, or an encampment for refugees or prisoners of war. It is seen in broad daylight, at night, and at one stage in a glowing crimson sunset. But nothing alleviates its grimness and inhumanity – at the very best it resembles a purpose-built suburb of poverty.
Crime has, in a nauseous reversal of liberal social thinking, almost been “designed into” the City of God, but any foreseeable conventional breakdown of law and order has evolved one or two steps further into the corruption and degradation of children. Li’l Dice, a tiny kid, plans a staggeringly audacious hold-up of a brothel, but in a fit of pique at being relegated to the status of lookout by his older comrades, returns to the scene of the crime to murder every single innocent customer and employee of the “motel” – it is a truly chilling moment of unalloyed evil.
Meirelles’s storytelling rushes forward at a full, breathless tilt, swerving, accelerating, doubling back on itself, amplifying the roles and experiences of incidental characters. A bravura narrative moment reveals itself when he discloses the history of one single apartment, showing how it becomes degraded and denatured as it ceases to be a family home and becomes a drug-dealer’s den. Meirelles’s film flashes and sweeps around you, dizzying, disorientating, intoxicating.
His mastery of his material consists not merely in the adaptation of Paulo Lins’s novel, but a direct engagement with the ghetto itself, and his triumphant recruitment of a veritable army of non-professionals is the result of an almost military raid on this dangerous territory. This is something that combines film-making with oral history. It is a compelling piece of work.