In 1960 the Guanabara State government in Brazil created a favela in the west of Rio de Janeiro. Its intention was to move favelas from the centre of the city to the outskirts. Known locally as CDD, the neighbourhood of Cidade de Deus (City of God) is famous across the world, even US President Barack Obama has paid a visit, thanks to an extraordinary novel by Paulo Lins. Lins moved to the favela with his family when he was a young boy in the mid 1960s. In 1997 he published Cidade de Deus which is a semi-autobiographical novel about young men growing up in the favela. Its account of a life surrounded by crime inspired a 2002 film adaptation co-directed by Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund. The film won over 50 awards and is, quite simply, one of the very best crime fiction films ever made. Continuing our theme of showcasing the best crime fiction from World Cup winning countries, today I would like to talk about the extraordinary Cidade de Deus.
The film is an incredible achievement both in the scale of the story telling, which extends over three decades, and in terms of the production itself. Only one professional actor with previous film experience was used, and even then in a minor role. All the other parts were played by amateurs and locals from the favelas, some of them from Cidade de Deus itself. Whilst the directors cited the lack of black actors with film experience as one of the reasons they did this, their desire to tell Lins’ story in as authentic a manner as possible was the main driving force behind the project.
What that does however, is to project such a visceral on-screen image that you may wonder why you started watching. It is quite unlike any other crime film I have ever seen. At its heart is the story of a slum which is masquerading as a housing project for the masses. Behind this thin veneer of state intervention is a world in which the state has abandoned its people and left them to fend for themselves. Life is cheap, astonishingly so at times and if there is a sense of the residents of Cidade de Deus being victims of state abandonment then this manifests itself in the form of stark and unrestrained aggression. As crime fiction fans we are used to violence. It is part of the deal, particularly with offshoots that explore gang culture and serial killers. We’ve dealt with crime fiction for children before but Cidade de Deus does something radically different. It has gangs, weapons, ruthless killing, total disregard for human life and it also has children. But this time it has the children in control. Faces so young you can barely believe they can talk, let alone command others, or take a life in the blink of an eye. It is utterly terrifying to watch and yet also completely intoxicating.
The difference between Cidade de Deus and a conventional gang related crime film is the lifestyle of the gang members. Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) is widely regarded, rightly so, as a masterclass in story telling and film making. The brutality is constant, the threat of violence pervades every scene and yet it doesn’t come close to the terror in Cidade de Deus. The lifestyle of the gangs drives this difference. In classic gangster fiction the bad guys live high-rolling lifestyles with girls, drugs and expensive restaurants being the norm. In Cidade de Deus there is none of this. The norm is filth, squalor, and no hope of rescue. It is this societal dead-end that drives the violence. Traditional gangsters could walk away if they wanted to such is the material wealth at their disposal. That, in my view, gives the violence that surrounds conventional gangster stories a sense of being driven by ambition and aspiration. An early line in Goodfellas, spoken by Henry Hill, is as far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster. In these types of crime fiction stories bad guys have guns because they can afford them and they like to make random displays of grotesque force in order to show off. Yet in Cidade de Deus the inhabitants of the favela have nothing and this leads to unimaginable depths of violence and disregard for life. There is no sense of a better life, and the only option for a remotely normal life, is violence. There is nothing aspirational about that.
There are some similarities between Cidade de Deus and conventional gangster films however and they relate to the self-contained nature of the violence. Gang warfare, at least as it relates to crime fiction, is often self-contained. Whilst the communities appear lawless, they are often self-policing in the sense that revenge and retribution are ways of conducting conventional policework via non-conventional means. That said, we need to remember that once Scorsese finished Goodfellas the cast and crew all went back to their normal lives, as cast and crew. When Meirelles and Lund finished Cidade de Deus the cast had no such luxury. Their future lay back in the favelas and that, as far as Meirelles and Lund were concerned, was unacceptable and would represent a gross abdication of responsibility. It would be, to continue the comparison with Goodfellas, the equivalent of having the character Henry Hill testify in court, expose his fellow gang members and then return home as if nothing had happened.
The producers of Cidade de Deus set up a number of organisations to tackle this problem. Kátia Lund helped set up, and now oversees Nós do Cinema (We of Cinema), which was originally designed to help the cast of the film find better opportunities, rather than simply send them back to the favela. The organisation continues to help people from the favela by providing opportunities in film and also by using film to raise awareness of important issues. Essentially it is trying to give as many people as possible the opportunity to do what Paulo Lins did, which was to live a life free from crime. Lins once said,
The elite is ignorant of the favela because it doesn’t want to see, and the favela doesn’t know the rest of Brazil because it is deprived of the means and the opportunity.
Thanks to Paulo Lins, the whole world knows about Cidade de Deus. And that, irrespective of whether you like what you see, is a good thing. Outstanding story telling isn’t always about giving people what they want. It is sometimes about forcing them to confront what they’d rather choose to ignore.