City of God (Brazil, 2002)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The irony of calling this movie City of God will not be lost on the viewer, since the location in question – the slums (or favelas) of Rio de Janeiro – is, at the best of times, purgatory, and, at the worst of times, hell. God is nowhere to be found. Poverty is the way of life. Greed, drugs, and violence rule these streets. The latter is so pervasive that, when a gang war erupts, prepubescent children arm themselves with guns and join in the fray. The ability to use a firearm is a more important, and prevalent, trait than the ability to read and write.

City of God is based on actual events that occurred in Rio de Janeiro during the 1960s and 1970s, and which formed the factual background for Paulo Lins' novel of the same name. In adapting the source material from the written page, director Fernando Meirelles has crafted a distinctive motion picture – one takes us into the streets with an unsurpassed intensity and immediacy. Meirelles' style is ripe with fast cuts, hand-held camera sequences, and other instances of visual potency. The '60s sequences and '70s sequences have individually unique looks – the former are viewed through an orange/brown filter while the latter boast slightly desaturated colors. The single most memorable scene involves a murder that is lighted by a strobe, making everything seem to occur in jerky slow-motion.

The storyline is not straightforward. The movie tells the tale of the rise and fall of the fearsome, sociopath gang leader Li'l Zé (Leanadro Frimino da Hora), who reigned as king of the drug lords during the '70s. The first portion of the movie illustrates some of the forces that mold Li'l Zé into the man he becomes, while the second half shows his ruthless leap to power (he kills all of his rivals), followed by the take-no-prisoners war he wages against opposing gangsters Carrot (Matheus Nachtergaele) and Knockout Ned (Deu Jorge).

The film is narrated by Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), a photographer who exists on the outskirts of Li'l Zé's circle. He knows the gang lord well enough to be able to relate his life's story, but is not so close to him that he has become poisoned. Rocket's telling is not linear. He generally relates the story in chronological fashion, but, like many storytellers, he often stops to present tangential information about a new character or situation. Meirelles never permits these tangents to go too far astray, nor does he allow them to go on for too long. In fact, his approach to some of these is like Tom Tykwer's snapshot views of characters in Run Lola Run – show quick clips of certain events that define an individual, then move on.

The violence in City of God is extreme and shocking, even though there is virtually no blood. Part of the reason has to do with the age of the killers and their victims. Many gang members are children, and they kill and are killed with the same callousness as adults. Death is no respecter of age in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. The immediate goal of a seven-year old homeless boy is not finding a family or a friend, but finding a gun. When war between Li'l Zé and Knockout Ned is declared, children are quick to declare their allegiance so they can obtain a weapon and go out to kill.

Despite the grim, serious nature of the subject matter, Meirelles unearths occasional moments of humor, although they are often of the gallows variety. For example, one vignette explores Rocket's failed attempt to become a criminal. After deciding to try out the life of a thief, he quits because he often finds his intended victims to be "too cool" to steal from. Moments of levity like this are necessary to keep City of God from becoming unbearably bleak. If there's a message that the film espouses, it's that, in a culture where violence begets violence, only the names change. When one gang lord is deposed, another will rise in his place. And, as often as not, it's the children, more than the adults, who have to be watched.

City of God (Brazil, 2002)

Run Time: 2:15
U.S. Release Date: 2003-01-24
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity, Drugs)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: English subtitled Portuguese
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1