I hate violence and I hate watching violent films. But for every rule there's an exception, and if the violence is an accurate portrayal of a real situation, and the film tells an important and hidden story, then — for me — it's justified. City of God (Cidade de Deus) is a violent film, but an important, beautiful and heartbreaking one. The film is based on the true story of a group of kids growing up in a Rio favela, from the perspective of Rocket — the only one to break out of the cycle of poverty and violence and get out of the favela. Almost all of his contemporaries end up being drawn into drug-dealing, violence and crime.
The film starts and ends with a brilliant sequence; rather than the usual gangster car chase, this is a chicken chase. We see a skinny chicken watching its former companion being prepared for barbecuing with an expression of some dread on its beak1. It manages to free its leg from the string tether and makes a break for freedom, hotly pursued by a horde of equally skinny gun-toting gangster kids.
It's a funny start, but — while there are moments of similar tragi-comedy in the rest of the film — the emphasis is on tragedy. We see the people struggling to make a living in the shanty they were dumped in after being made homeless. If they can find a legal job at all, it involves long hours and survival-level wages. Meanwhile, they see the drug dealers and criminals making at least two or three times as much money, and getting respect, nice clothes and gold watches. When you see it like that, there isn't much of a choice involved.
The problem is, of course, that drugs and guns breed violence, and average life expectancy goes right down. And if you don't expect to live much beyond your mid-twenties, you're willing to take almost any risk to increase your status quickly, because there is no future. Two of the most intriguing characters in the film are the friends Lil' Zé© (formerly Lil' Dice) and Benny. Lil' Zé© is almost psychotic. He wants nothing more than total domination of the favela, and is perfectly willing to coldly kill anyone who he thinks stands in his way. Benny, on the other hand, is a pragmatist. He likes nice clothes and ease that comes with drug dealing, but after he gets a girlfriend he'd rather smoke joints with her than shoot people. He tries to get out too, because he can see what's happening to Lil' Zé©, but he doesn't make it.
If you get the film on DVD, it's really worth watching the documentary on the extras. They have some interviews with the Chief of Police of Rio — an infinitely tired looking man. He is unbelievably honest about the situation between the police and the inhabitants of the favelas. He sees it as totally understandable that kids turn to drug-dealing — what other choice do they have? At one point he is explaining the rather brutal methods they have to employ in the favelas, and the interviewer cuts in with a comment, saying "So, you keep control by repression?". The Chief looks at him as if he's a bit slow and says "Of course we use repression. How else are we to keep 2 million people living on less than the minimum wage under control? We enforce the status quo." He has a point, but it's utterly depressing.
1 I didn't think this was possible, but it's great acting from the chicken. Or great anthropomorphism from me — one or the other.