Gangs of Rio

Child's Play: The thuggery depicted in City of God has only intensified over the decades in the Brazilian projects.Photo: Courtesy of Miramax Films.

The dirt-poor brazilian housing project Cidade de Deus, on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, was created in the sixties and quickly became a highly dangerous fiefdom of teen drug lords and gang chieftains. City of God—which was directed by Fernando Meirelles and adapted from a popular novel by Paulo Lins that drew on eight years of research about the favela—is an attempt to get at the visceral horror of day-to-day life in the Cidade de Deus as it spans three eras: the late sixties, with their teen (and younger) petty thievery and samba rhythms; the psychedelic seventies, with their intense cruelties; and the early eighties, when gang wars converted the territories into garrisons.

City of God is undeniably powerful, but also rather numbing. Meirelles is one of the most successful TV-commercial directors in Brazil, and at times he seems to be showing off the violence as if it were a new product line. The distinction between the depiction of violence and its exploitation is paper-thin. We are made to witness horrific acts of cruelty, and yet there is something unseemly in the way Meirelles glamorizes them with fancy effects: split screens, slo-mo, jump cuts. He’s trying to turn us on. Meanwhile, the victims and perpetrators of the violence are mere stick figures in the choreography. This is what often happens, in somewhat different ways, in the films of Quentin Tarantino, where we are always aware of a cineast getting between us and the bloodshed he shows us. And as in Tarantino’s films, there is in City of God a high quotient of overkill (literally). Meirelles is not a less-is-more kind of guy; the murder sprees and body counts are so nonstop that after a while we just tune out. What he doesn’t realize is that in the movie-violence arena, it is almost always true that more is less.

Hector Babenco’s Pixote, which also dealt with street urchins in Brazil, was a far greater experience than City of God because it put a human face on the misery. The faces in Meirelle’s film are not much more than masks. This may be his point: Poverty and depravity have stripped these kids of any defining humanity and turned them into a race of grotesques. The film’s central monster, Li’l Zé (Leandro Firmino da Hora), who murders as casually as most people yawn, is depicted from age 11 as beyond help or hope. But surely it is the artist’s job to show us that the monster is, in fact, a human being. Otherwise, we might as well be watching a horror film—which is essentially what City of God is.

If one is looking for a true horror story in which the monster is all too humanly glimpsed, a much better choice is Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary, a documentary by André Heller and Othmar Schmiderer. Traudl Junge was 22 when she was chosen from a clerical pool to become one of Adolf Hitler’s private secretaries; she was with him through his last days in the bunker, where he dictated to her his last will and testament. At the age of 81, 56 years after the war’s end, she decided to allow herself to be filmed for the first time speaking about her experiences. Although she had consulted with a few historians and moviemakers over the years, she had never really unburdened herself, and this 90-minute documentary is a devastating act of personal confession.

Junge, who died just hours after the film received its premiere at the 2002 Berlin Film Festival, has the look of a woman who is still in the grip of a waking nightmare. (The end credits note that in the postwar years, she worked as a financial journalist and took early retirement because of severe depression.) She is entirely believable when she describes herself as an impressionable and apolitical girl who got the job only because she happened to win a typing contest; the reason she is convincing is that she makes absolutely no excuses for herself. She recalls how, after the war, she passed a statue near her home in Munich erected to the memory of a young student, Sophie Scholl, who was the same age as she was when she began working for Hitler and who was executed for belonging to an anti-Nazi organization. At that moment, she says, “I really sensed it was no excuse to be young and that it might have been possible to find out what was going on.”

Her perceptions of Hitler are all in the comic-ghastly mode: He was courteous around her and rarely spoke of the Jews; hated rooms that were too warm; never spoke of love for anybody; hated wearing shorts because he thought his knees were too white; never had flowers in his room because he loathed having dead things around. He doted on his pet dog, Blondie, but when it came time to test the cyanide capsules in the bunker, Blondie bit the dust. She says, “If I ever had the opportunity to meet Hitler again, in this life or in some other, I really would like to ask him what he would have done if he had found some Jewish blood in his family. Would he have gassed himself?”

Occasionally, the filmmakers show us Junge watching herself on a video monitor as she methodically recounts her past. In these moments, she stares at her image with a kind of awed disbelief. It’s as if she were trying to make out the person on the screen only to realize, with mute horror, that it is herself.

Coincidentally, Max, written and directed by Menno Meyjes, is a fabricated account of the young Hitler as a creepy, vituperative art student. Noah Taylor does startlingly well by this role, but the conceit behind the film is a bizarre piece of wish-fulfillment. Meyjes would have us believe that if only Adolf had met with better success from the art world—personified here by the (fictional) Jewish art dealer Max Rothman, played by John Cusack—then maybe the really bad stuff wouldn’t have happened. It’s an irony that Traudl Junge would not appreciate. Denzel Washington’s directorial debut,Antwone Fisher, is stolidly inspirational inthe Finding Forrester–Good Will Huntingmode, but should be remembered for a pair ofperformers—Derek Luke as Fisher, a Navy sailorgrappling with a brutalizing childhood, and ViolaDavis, whose cameo as the mother who abandoned himcuts through the sap like an acetylene torch.

City of God
Directed by Fernando Meirelles

Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary
Documentary directed by André Heller and Othmar Schmiderer

Written and directed by Menno Meyjes; starring John Cusak.

Antwone Fisher
Directed by, and starring, Denzel Washington.

Gangs of Rio