CFS looks into a “City of God”

Chris Sawby

Like all great cities, Rio de Janeiro has a dark side. Outside the postcard-perfect beauty of Rio’s tourist paradise lie deadly, crime-ridden slums, or “favelas,” like the ironically named eponym of Katia Lund and Fernando Mereilles’ film, “City of God.” In this ghetto, school-aged children roam the streets and alleys in armed packs, robbing locals and pillaging businesses as they please, while older thugs run drug rings and wage gang warfare. Since the police are on the take, and the government has, as a policy, long forgotten about the people of the slums, little hope for outward intervention exists. In fact, the centripetal force of the circular violence is so great that even would-be heroes and escapees are seemingly drawn back into the fray.

“City of God” is a chronicle of two boys whose lives in this “purgatory” take different paths; quiet and bashful Rocket is peaceful, with a passion for photography and bad luck with girls, while his childhood friend Lil’ Ze is violent and obsessed with viciously ruling the slum. As the film follows the saga of the City of God over time, we witness the transfer of power across three generations of hoodlums. Each time, disturbingly young children depose the old guard by coup d’état in a deadly cycle described succinctly by Lil’ Ze: “If you raise snakes, expect to be bitten.” The easygoing Rocket’s penchant for photography allows him to observe, and largely avoid, the violence, even as his foil, Lil’ Ze, begins his career of killing, scheming and dealing drugs at the young age of ten years.

Co-directors Lund and Mereilles strived for realism with this movie, but the actual City of God is too dangerous for filming, so a similar but less perilous favela known as High City serves as the surrogate slum. To enhance the authentic feel of the screenplay, the team cast non-professional actors who grew up in real favelas to play Lil’ Ze and various other characters, and spent months training them. The resulting performances are raw and intense, and graced with undeniable empathy and authenticity. Touchingly, the makers of this film have demonstrated a social conscience by offering these slum-bred actors opportunities to take acting classes and continue working in the world of movie production rather than return to the deadly favela lifestyle.

Although the screenplay and performances offer lots of gritty realism, the cinematography is marked by slick stylistic elements that recall other notable gangster movies. In particular, the montage sequences, point-of-view shots, zoom shots, and photographic freeze-frames are reminiscent of “Goodfellas” without being derivative. Dialogue is in Portuguese with English subtitles. “City of God” will be showing in the Villanova Cinema on Saturday April 9 at 7 pm, Sunday April 10 at 330 and 7 pm, and Monday April 11 at 7 pm. The Monday evening viewing only will feature guest speaker Dr. Satya Pattnayak, associate professor of Sociology and Director of Latin American Studies here at the University. Admission is $3.50 with student ID, $5 for the general public.