By Anne-Marie Dingemans
City of God (Cidade de Deus) is the ironical name of one of the most dangerous favelas (slums) of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The movie director, Fernando Meirelles, based this film on a true story, filmed in Cidade de Deus itself, and he used hundreds of local children (real-life slum children) as extras, which makes the movie all the more powerful.
The story begins in the '60s when the overcrowded housing project Cidade de Deus is home to the undesirables of Rio. The main characters are just children, watching the crime and violence going on around them and dreaming about the future. Buscape wants to be a photographer and his friend Ze Pequeno wants to be a powerful gangster. As the story continues into the '70s, you see the favela grow dirtier, poorer and more dangerous. People really do not have any options here. Violent crime is committed by children and young teenagers, and Ze Pequeno is counting his kills. We see the events unfolding through the eyes of Buscape; his desperation, not knowing what to do to get out of the favela and trying not to get killed in the meanwhile.
It all culminates in the '80s in an all-out war between the two most powerful drug lords; ruthless Ze Pequeno and slightly more sane Mane Galingha. Buscape finds himself caught in the middle of a conflict that, he says: "By the end, after years of fighting, nobody could remember how it all started." Interesting here is that Mereilles is not pointing fingers nor romanticizing the cruel Ze Pequeno's opponent. He's just depicting an utterly senseless situation with no easy solution.
For me, the best part of this movie is the fact that I couldn't escape the reality of it. Some movies are made just to provide entertainment, but thousands of movies are made because the director wants to tell a story, send you a message. Well, the message arrives loud and clear! Maybe with other movies touching on disagreeable themes you can deceive yourself into thinking "it's just a movie", but you can't deceive yourself in any way here. It has happened, it is real, those kids you see there in the background do live right there in that favela. Very powerful. A must-see.