I watched a few films over the holidays, with City of God probably being the best of them. Nominated for four Oscars in 2004, including Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay, the picture presents a raw and gritty portrayal of youth and the favelas during the 60s, 70s and 80s. The movie takes its name from the Cicade de Deus neighbourhood, a time capsule that showcases the breadth of vintage Rio. Among numerous themes, Cicade dissects the standoff between the crime boss Li’l Ze and his nemesis, Knockout Ned. The hit flick is based on the Paulo Lins novel, and claims that it’s ‘based on a true story’.
A pleasant surprise
I first sighted the DVD back when video stores were still the norm. I misjudged the title, and the production’s quality surprised me. At the time of casting, none of the actors were bona fide stars and some were even exports from the favela themselves. The ensemble would include a teenage Alice Braga, who would graduate to bigger roles in Hollywood. The movie’s visuals were Oscar-worthy. From images of the jungle to the orange hues and red clay of bygone Rio, the picture was a sure-fire winner. The plot, too, was grand and made you empathise with the character’s plight. Cicade reminded me of this Filo movie not just because of the likeable ensemble, but also due to the similar setting. I have to admit that Cicade, with fully-realised players, def thread, and loveable imagery, was a very cool watch.
‘In media res’
The picture follows the lives of a few families in Cicade de Deus. Cicade uses a technique called ‘in media res’ where action generally starts in the middle of things before connecting the dots thereafter. The opening sequence features a chicken navigating its way through a crowd, before being amidst the police and the local gang. At the end of the 60s three men are looters who get protection in the slum by being Robin Hoods. Shaggy, Clipper, and Goose comprise the ‘Tender Trio’. However, a boy named Li’l Dice bamboozles them into robbing a motel, before killing off its occupants. The three legs are then pursued and live as fugitives, each meeting a tragic end.
Li’l Dice becomes Li’l Ze, a terror who runs the cicade, eliminating all opposition bar one. He spends his days devising plans to get rid of Carrot, the last man standing, but couldn’t deliver since the dealer is friends with Benny, his main man. In spite of his imposing persona, Ze is rather unattractive. When he tries to woo a girl, he gets rejected. Soon his bitterness progresses to murder as he tries to topple the boo. Meanwhile, Rocket is Goose’s younger brother. Taking shots and the beauty of nature has always enamoured him. He manages to get the girl of his dreams, Angelica, but a litter of kids known as ‘the runts’ always gets in the way. Regardless, Knockout Ned becomes Ze’s mortal enemy after the latter wrecks his family. He joins forces with Carrot, because ‘Two heads are better than one.’
Carrot, Ned, and Ze
Soon the fighting begins. Carrot and Ned begin stocking up the armoury, shoring up their team’s arsenal. As they go on an arms race with Ze, more and more gangsters begin to fool each outfit, masquerading as allies while in truth being spies. More toys mean more cash, and Carrot and the Knockout are finding other ways to fund their slingshots. Initially timid, Knockout Ned realises that you can’t be a pushover if you were to survive in a dog-eat-dog world. While this monstrosity is unfolding, Rocket’s photo of Ze becomes front-page material. His images are special since they bring the Cariocas into the favelas, a rare feat indeed. As he prepares for another shoot, the five-ohs arrive and the men scramble. Carrot is killed, Ze falls at the hands of the runts, and knockout Ned dies a legend. Rocket makes sure to take a few snaps of the aftermath. He decides to publish the photos of Ze, securing him an internship with the local paper.
City of God is a hidden gem of world cinema. The picture was a massive critical success, not only ranking in best of the year lists, but also in best-ever film catalogues. Though the dialogue is in Portuguese, the tropes of trials, dreams, and uncertainty are universal concepts. The storytelling keeps you guessing, and the choreography is sweet, mastering place and time in a homage to Rio. I heard that the novel version loses some bite after the translation. This is not the case with the film, which was at times humorous and cruel, but always entertaining. In fact, a few people in the know have concluded that this was one of those rare occasions where the movie trumps the book. Cicade de Deus could be an archetype of our own metropoles. The production has this tagline: ‘If you run, the beast catches you; if you stay, the beast eats you.’