City of God (2002) / Drama-Thriller
aka Cidade de Deus

MPAA Rated: R for strong brutal violence, sexuality, drug use, and language
Running Time: 130 min.

Cast: Alexandre Rodrigues, Leandro Firmino, Phellipe Haagensen, Douglas Silva, Jonathan Haagensen, Matheus Nachtergaile, Seu Jorge
Director: Fernando Meirelles
Screenplay: Braulio Mantovani
Review published December 14, 2004

Sometimes it isnít what you say, but the way you say it, that makes all the difference in the impact of a story, and there's no denying, City of God relates its story very well indeed.  Itís a story not unfamiliar to moviegoers bred on gangster films like The Godfather, Goodfellas, and Scarface, and in many ways, Fernando Mereilles visual style canít help but remind you of these epic gangster operas.  Based on the novel by Paulo Lins, and adapted to a screenplay by Braulio Mantovani, City of God is an in-your-face tale of a city written off by the rest of the world, with inhabitants dumped there because no one else wants them, leaving them to fend for their own survival any way they can. 

There isnít much money to be gained, save for robbery, drug dealing, or extortion.  Even trying to go legit seems futile, as you are powerless against the criminal element who rob you whenever you have money, or at the very least, demand ďprotection moneyĒ to ensure your safety.

Our guide through the city, and narrator, is Rocket, a young man who has been able to sidestep a life of crime by sticking to his books and his dream of one day becoming a photographer.  Rocket relates several tales of the city, or more accurately, several who made it the cesspool this slum near Rio de Janeiro grew into in the Sixties and Seventies.  He starts off with the tale of his brother, who ran with a couple of other young thugs trying to thieve their way into easy money.  Because they were one of the few who had money, they earned the respect and admiration of many of their peers and the younger children, who all saw crime as their way of making it.  One of these included Liíl Ze, who, unlike the rest of the children who wanted a piece of the pie, saw something bigger to be gained.  He wanted power, and enjoyed abusing it, and thrived off of the fear and respect he earned from his brutality.  However, rival gangs and victims seeking retribution threaten to disrupt his stranglehold, and soon the city boils over in bloodshed.

Weíve all seen this told in a variety of ways, but the way Mereilles tells it, itís like seeing it all for the first time.  Beautifully envisioned by cinematographer Cesar Charlone, the fluid movements and engaging stylistics add color, depth, pacing and immediacy to almost every scene.  It feels like youíre part of the action, right in the middle of this war-torn town where a bullet can come and claim the life of almost anyone at anytime.  Perhaps in no other movie in recent memory has the direction and cinematography driven the action so fully, and so powerfully.  This is especially true when you consider that almost all of the actors in City of God are complete amateurs. 

Although anarchy and apathy are abundant throughout, City of God does have a moral center, although it never preaches its positions in an obvious way.  We do begin to care about the characters, even though most are completely self-serving, and we feel absolute dread whenever Liíl Ze takes center stage, knowing the worst can, and often does, occur.  His character is evil, no doubt, but not purely, which makes him much more realistic, and with realism comes real fear.  He can take a life, or let things pass, like a god with a gun; everyone owes their life to him, living because he allows them to.

As mentioned previously, City of Godís creators owe much to the work of Martin Scorsese, but in comparison to the very similar Gangs of New York, this smaller budgeted, lesser-known vehicle runs circles around Scorseseís film.  Itís a gripping poetic, disturbing, provocative, thrilling, and terrifyingly visceral experience that screams with every frame, ďThis is what film making is all about!Ē

Qwipster's rating:

©2004 Vince Leo