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BOOKS & THE CULTURE City of God Directed by Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund c ity of God opens with a series of cuts: a knife chops carrots and slices a lime, a hand plays a slashing samba rhythm on a little guitar. The rhythm of the knife on the cutting board and the guitar churn forward, and the camera cuts from close-up to close-up. Footsteps on pavement, more music, then a gang of young kids, eight, ten years old, chasing a runaway chicken through the streets of a Brazilian slum with pistols drawn. It’s funny, it’s exciting, it’s stylishand it’s also profoundly unsettling. The film is named for the Cidade de urb of Rio de Janeiro that was founded in the 1960s as a housing development designed to keep poor people away from the center of Rio. Since then it’s grown into sprawling favela, or slum, with over 120,000 residents. The film is based on the best-selling novel by Paulo Lins, which in turn is based on Lins’ life. Our narrator, nicknamed Rocket, is a composite of Lins and one of his childhood friends. Rocket traces the story of a group of his playmateswith names like Li’l Ze, and Carrot-Topwho grow up to be ruthless bandits and the de facto rulers of City of God. They go to funk dances, hang out with Pentecostal Christians and Afro-Brazilian religious men, swim at the beach, and hide from crooked cops. They also murder, maim, rape, and pillage their way to the top of the heap, becomingfor a moment the most infamous criminals in Rio. Rocket, in turn, becomes the gang’s semi-official photographer. The film is by turns exhilarating, ter rifying, funny, confusing, and depressing. When “war” breaks out \(over drug profits, some imagined slight, or sheer neighborhood houses, blowing family portraits off walls and shattering the cheap trinkets perched on shelves and end tables. One particularly gruesome shoot-out leaves dead bodies draped pathetically across the street, falling off sidewalks and down stairs. The God in the title could be the bastard son of Mammon and Ares. The film is co-directed by Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund. Mierelles is a Clio award-winning commercial director who has also made kids’ shows for Brazilian TV. He enlisted Lund because she’d had experience working in the favelas, shooting Brazilian rap music videos and making a documentary on real-life drug wars. They wanted to work with children from City of God and other favelas, so they set up acting classes and workshops for kids from the area. The classes served as both clandestine auditions and long-form rehearsals. Only two of the film’s stars were professional performersan actor and a samba singer. The rest were chosen from the 200 kids the filmmakers worked with in their classes. In one truly haunting scene, a little kid has been caught shoplifting in a neighborhood under Li’l Ze’s protection. The child has to pick his punishment: Does he want to be shot in the hand or the foot? Most of the intimate, emotional moments in the film are seen from afar in wide shots, presumably because the amateur cast couldn’t sell the scenes in close-up. This time the camera stays right in the little boy’s face as he breaks down in anguish and terror. The film’s shaky, hand-held camera and washed out colorsit was shot on film, transferred to video, and then back to film to make it look grittiermake the moment feel all too real. I cringe whenever I try to imagine what the filmmakers did to that little boy to get that performance, or what kind of experiences he was drawing on from his own unimaginable life. c ity of God is the latest in a long line of Latin American films “starring” the lost children of the streets \(think of Luis Bufwel’s Los Olvidados, or Hector Babenco’s It’s also clearly descended from less gritty, more stylish can films like Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy and Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, which make the world of gangs and drug dealing look fun. Like City of God, Pixote relied on non-actors to play the lead roles. Fernando Ramos da Silva, who played the title role, later traded on his fame to become a real life bandit. Eventually he lost his life in a real-life shoot out with the police \(who dislike his fame as much as they disliked in Rio de Janeiro. So far, the cast of City of God has had better luck. Leandro Firminho da Hora, who plays the brutal Ze Pequeno, earned a role in a Brazilian adaptation of Georg Biichner’s Woyceck on the stage in Rio. In Brazil the film has been one of the biggest domestic hits ever, partly because in the past two years the blood has been spilling off the silver screen and out of the slums, down into chic shopping districts and the corridors of power. According to a recent Ford Foundationsponsored study by the Brazilian NGOs Viva Rio and the Institute for Religious Studies, 3,937 youths died from firearm-related injuries in Rio from 1987-2001. That puts Rio on pace per capita with the Palestinian Occupied Territories, where 467 Israeli and Palestinian youths were killed during the same period, which coincides with the first and latest intifadas. God’s Little Favela BY JAKE MILLER 22 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 4/25/03