‘Do you see me?’, is the question one of the characters from the favelas asks a representative of the Brazilian middle class near the end of Walter Salles and Daniela Thomas’s hard hitting neo realist film. For me, this moment is possibly the most affecting and also one immersed in a political reality that many accept as normal and natural in Brazilian society. Much has been written about Salles latest film and he continues to be the most celebrated film maker in Brazil and perhaps even Latin America. He is definitely the most important and active director/producer of his generation, having been largely responsible for the renaissance in Latin American cinema, achieving widespread critical acclaim for projects like ‘City of God’, ‘The Pope’s Toilet’and ‘Central Station’. I don’t want to focus that much on the film itself but concentrate briefly on the sequence in which the oldest of four sons, Denis, who works as a motorcycle courier is forced to flee after a ‘snatch and grab’ incident at a traffic junction ends badly.
Denis (João Baldasserini) is trying desperately to hold down the one job he has but a motorcycle courier on the chaotic streets of Rio is a risky proposition especially when he witnesses one of his fellow couriers mowed down in busy traffic. His social predicament is made worse by his inability to provide financial support for his baby son who lives with his girlfriend in a run down apartment. Denis lives with his three brothers and football crazy mother in the favelas but he sees the stark reality of his social position. As a courier, Denis gets very little work and is paid unfairly considering he is literally risking his life on the city streets and roads. It is inevitable that Denis naturally turns to crime so that he can make ends meet and attempt to rise above the deprived economic underclass of the favelas. Upon witnessing two men on a motorcycle smash the windscreen of an expensive car and speed away with a handbag, Denis realises how he can turn his mobility and position to his own favour. At first he is successful but such a criminal proposition is fraught with the risk of not only being arrested but vilified by those around him especially his pious brother, Dinho.
This is pure neo realism in that Salles never resorts to sentimental techniques or obvious emotional manipulation, but by revealing the typical problems and dilemmas faced by the underclass from the favelas he makes us consider our own position in relation to that of characters like Denis. Once Denis flees the incident at the traffic junction, he is knocked over by a middle class businessman. Injured, Denis forces the businessman back into his luxury jeep and pretending to have a gun, forces him to drive them away from the nearby sound of police sirens. Ironically, the businessman drives Denis to some wasteland but as he waits for Denis to instruct him on what to do next, the businessman never once glances or even looks at Denis. Even though this narrative situation is very conventional and quite formulaic in how it unfolds, what makes it so remarkably effective is the film makers decision to represent the separation between the dispossessed and elite of Brazil as one in which any kind of positive interaction is a near impossibility. Though the businessman is frightened by what may happen, his refusal to look at and acknowledge the presence of Denis is powerful in underlining the invisibility of those who exist on the margins of what is a deeply unequal society. To the middle classes and ruling elite, people like Denis don’t really exist, they are invisible and deserve no sympathy whatsoever. For me, it is the most truthful moment in what is a very humanist social drama.