It’s hard to say that City of God (2002) wasn’t what I expected because I didn’t think that I expected anything. All I knew was that the film was loved by audiences and the only film in IMDb’s Top 25 rankings I hadn’t seen. But it’s being Brazilian, loved, and generally in the crime genre created some vague framework and its bronze poster art suggested the style. [I picked a different poster that was more representative.] I guess when you put it that way, I had some expectations and they turned out to be quite flawed. City of God is actually something like a combination of Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and Goodfellas (1990) in more ways that one. The direction by Kátia Lund and Fernando Meirelles (though only Meirelles got the Oscar nomination, whatever that means) is amazing. It feels almost like nothing I’ve ever seen before because the cinematography (César Charlone) is so fresh and raw and kinetic that it pushes you right through the story. I was always just one step away from being disoriented but was too involved to give up on it. It isn’t a favorite, but it’s too good not to try.
During the 60’s and 70’s, a young boy named Rocket (Luis Otávio/Alexandre Rodrigues) lives in the Cidade de Deus (City of God), a slum neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro. He’s too afraid of being shot to be a hood and too disinclined towards labor to be a worker. That makes life a little difficult to navigate for him. His story, and that of the City of God, is a long and winding one, involving the rise and fall of two-bit hoods. The stars of this epic are Li’l Zé (Douglas Silva/Leandro Firmino), a power-crazed psychopath, Carrot (Matheus Nachtergaele), a relatively laid-back drug dealer, Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge), a would-be normal who is pulled into Li’l Zé’s cycle of violence, and Angélica (Alice Braga), a young woman on whom Rocket has an enormous crush. Power and violence, murder as a means to an end or just something to do, and little enough consequence to anything. That’s the City of God. Forget it Rocket, it’s Rio.
City of God didn’t feel like two hours, it felt more like three. The non-linear storytelling kept running around the plot so much that when it finally called back to where we started, I saw it with different eyes. I’m not sure whether to call Bráulio Mantovani’s screenplay, based upon the novel by Paulo Lins, a masterpiece of organization or a confusing stylization. The fact that the film was as entertaining and interesting as it was suggests the former. Both Mantovani and Charlone, the cinematographer, were nominated for Academy Awards in their respective fields, and the idea that Seabiscuit (2004) was nominated for Best Picture while City of God didn’t even get a Best Foreign Language nomination is incomprehensible.
The impression this film provides more than any other is a pleasant overwhelming of sensation while it pulls out heart when you aren’t looking. The overwhelming I’ve covered, but the heart-pulling comes from the story and the undoubted notion that this is an accurate depiction of a time and place. It’s chaos. Crime of all sorts goes on almost without hindrance. When the police are involved, it only raises the body count, but at least they manifest some kind of moral judgment. When the police lose interest in the City, it’s the acts of intra-neighbor violence that go without any consequence that hurt the most. One scene recalls the indoctrination of child soldiers and as the penultimate shot dwells on a gang of armed children, it doesn’t seem like a metaphor. Someone should do something! There, I said it, now I can go back to watching more movies.
Enjoy it on Blu Ray.
I wish I could understand all languages.