"It was like a message from God: 'Honesty doesn't pay, Sucker!'"
Buscape "Rocket" is a teenager and aspiring photographer in Rio de Janeiro when he begins to tell his story, adamantly clear about how his place in the world came to be. The sprawling slums outside Rio didn't happen by accident, he says. They were built by the government in the 1950's for the purpose of relocating the poor outside the city center. By the 1970's and at present, the favela--as it's still known--has grown into a desperately dangerous place, a place rampant with lawlessness where gangs not only operate thriving drug businesses, but control many aspects daily domestic life. The slum has become a city in itself, even tagged with the ironical label of Cuidad de Deus (City of God). In the City of God, ordinary citizens are literally caught in the crossfire (the movie's climactic sequence and the point where Rocket begins his tale is, in effect, this very situation). Their lives are hopeless in nearly every respect, equally meaningless to both the ruthless druglords and municipal authorities who constantly jockey for power in the streets.
Rocket has lived side-by-side with the gangs since his early youth. Drug kingpins and gang co-leaders Lil' Ze and Bené have even accommodated his artistic ambitions, incorporating his ties to the local media for personal glamour and using photo ops to further their influence. With murder and destruction commonplace in the City of God, lives are short and violence is inevitable. Soon after the sociopathic Ze offs another headstrong rebel (Ze having previously raped the man's girlfriend) a new wave of heavy violence hits the streets. Only this time, Rocket has been secretly employed by the local law and order, one of a small handful of only partially corrupted entities, who plan to employ his unique abilities to infiltrate Ze's gang and hopefully put an end to the current wave of carnage.
Most non-third worlders are aware, to some degree, of the plight of the masses living in places like the City of God. Dictatorial regimes, corrupt governments, the lack of a middle class, etc. have always existed, giving rise to disadvantage, disorder and poverty as the only certainty. But nothing sheds light on the reality of things quite like a movie the caliber of Cuidad de Deus. The film neither preaches nor panders, but it does show, with incandescent clarity, how the purity of love is smothered by a world where death and destruction reign supreme and senseless violence is far too great an adversary for peace and stability. Take for instance the scene in which Lil' Ze effectively begins his life of crime as a pre-adolescent, strolling into a brothel one night, laughing with glee as he guns down around 25 defenseless souls before riding away in a stolen car with the proceeds of the evening's excursion. Or the scene near the end of the film where another young boy, unnamed but obviously representing the next generation of up and coming hoods, must shoot his best friend to test his allegiance. It becomes shockingly clear to everyone watching that things happen on a whim in the City of God. Comradery and affection mean nothing when life is this cheap.