Foreign films are rarely nominated for Oscars–outside of the Best Foreign Film category, of course–so if I say that Cidade de Deus was nominated for four last year and yet not in that category you’ll have some idea of the quality and controversy of the film. When I finished watching my soul felt dirty, that after 130 minutes of nearly unrelenting grim violence pushing the delete button on the Tivo remote felt good.
The problem, though, is that City of God tells a true story. The movie’s name comes from a housing project in Rio de Janeiro that the government threw up in the mid-’60s. People displaced from elsewhere or simply unable to afford a home were installed into shacks that had no hot water and, at least at first, only sometimes electricity. Few of the youngsters had any hope of finding an honest way out but the depths to which many sank are beyond the pale of civilization. Think of the stories of invaders raping and pillaging in olden days, then update it to the our times, add drugs, pistols and semi-automatics and, oh yeah, leave out the invaders part since these monsters were bred at home.
As the story begins three boys who don’t seem more than 14 or 15, the Tender Trio, are making a few cruzeiros ripping off gas delivery trucks. Two of them have younger brothers hanging around, plus another neighbor boy of the same age. The narrator, essentially, is named Busca-Pe (Rocket), one of the brothers. He’s got no taste for crime despite finding himself driven to try it later on but the other two youngsters certainly do.
One night the neighbor boy suggests the Trio move up in class by ripping off a whorehouse a couple of miles away. Though brought along, they leave Li’l Dice outside to watch for cops. As a way to alert the bandidos he’s given a pistol but the temptation, the siren call to act, is too great and he fires off a round. The olders boys hear it and rush out; not around they assume the police pinched him, or worse, and flee in one of the john’s cars.
Li’l Dice has, in fact, gone inside and, well, director Fernando Meirelles leaves the showing of that for later. More bad things happen and soon all the Tender Trio are out of the picture. But not our boy with the cold eyes. He’s active, and learning, realizing his rightful place is running the drug concession in the ghetto. On his 18th birthday Li’l Dice and Benny (the other younger brother) literally eliminate all the other top dealers except one, Carrot, who’s befriended Benny.
Rocket, meanwhile, is trying to find a way out that doesn’t involve being on either end of a gun barrel and latches on to photography. This puts him at the center of the inevitable battle between Li’l Ze and Carrot. I doubt more bullets were fired on D-Day than seemed to be splattering everywhere, from any boy big enough to lift a pistol, in the war between the dealers.
Having written all this, I still understand how Meirelles was nominated for Best Director and other nods came for Editing and Cinematography (the fourth, for adapted screenplay, I’m not as clear on mostly because I had to read the dialog as subtitles). This film is political art of the highest order. The descent into barbarity–boys barely out of diapers are in one scene making a list of who they should kill next because, well, they said something offensive–is portrayed as the natural result of grinding poverty, corruption and indifference. Yet it’s portrayed stunningly, with the color and vitality most Westerners associate with Brazil.
An amazing film yet more horrifying than anything made by Wes Craven of John Carpenter. When City of God finished Vivian asked me how it was. I told her I was glad to have seen it butjust as glad she hadn’t.