Straight outta Ipanema

Revelation versus exploitation in City of God

Meirelles knows all this, yet he probably thought he needed melodramatic hyperbole to win over his audience's hearts and minds. Too often, though, he aims even lower. Few things could be more viscerally wrenching than when Li'l Zé sticks a gun in the hand of 10-year-old Steak & Fries, points to two small weeping boys, and orders him to shoot the child of his choice. It's an upsetting scene, yet its most disturbing feature may be the shameless way Meirelles works us over. Indeed, for all its pretense to social significance, City of God is essentially a tarted-up exploitation picture whose business is to make ghastly things fun. Early on, when the young Li'l Zé (known then as Li'l Dice) guns down innocent guests at a love hotel, his delight is presented so glamorously there's little doubt the filmmakers are getting off on the violence, too. (Of course, it's hard to get too huffy about a Brazilian director doing this when I live in a city that has taught the world so many different ways to turn killing into entertainment.)

Half a century ago, Luis Buñuel made Los Olvidados, a classic so flinty it even portrayed a blind street musician unsympathetically. Since then, there has flourished a tradition of harsh movies about the plight of street kids: Pixote, Mira Nair's Dickensian Salaam Bombay, the Hughes brothers' Menace II Society, Victor Gaviria's Bogotá-based The Rose Seller, Indonesian Garin Nugroho's tender Leaf on a Pillow and virtually the whole career of Larry Clark. Although many of these films are "powerful" (the usual term of approbation), I'm always made slightly queasy by films that take impoverished young non-actors, then package the squalor and violence of their lives for the consumption of viewers safely removed from such realities. These projects don't necessarily help their stars: Fernando Ramos da Silva, who played Pixote, wound up getting killed by the police, and I'm told that Salaam Bombay's star, Shafiq Sayed, wound up back on the streets. No matter how nobly intentioned, such movies are more likely to satisfy our voyeurism than to engender any newfound sense of social responsibility. Walking from the theater, I found myself wondering: Do Brazilians really need a movie to show them that Rio's favelas are infernal compounds run by drug barons and that this state of affairs is devastating for the people who live there? Maybe they do, but wouldn't the real Cidade de Deus be better served by a film less eager to shock and bedazzle us with incessant, graphic violence? There's more to the poor, after all—even the criminal poor—than the cruelty with which their lives sometimes end.

City of God was directed by Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund; written by Bráulio Mantovani, from Paulo Lins' novel; produced by Andrea Barata Ribeiro and Mauricio Andrade Ramos; and stars Alexandre Rodrigues and Leandro Firmino da Hora. Now playing at the Grove, Los Angeles, and Laemmle Monica 4-Plex, Santa Monica.

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