City of God (2003)

Looking for a film that really packs a genuine wallop? Take the visual panache of a pre-Madonna Guy Ritchie (Snatch) film, the juvenile delinquency and debauchery of a Larry Clark (Kids) film, the propulsive narration and bloody violence of a Martin Scorsese (Raging Bull) film and mix it with a cast of about 40 characters. What you get is City of God, a brilliant and vibrant film that pulsates with exhilarating action, thoughtful commentary and devastating power.

In the 1960s, the Brazilian government transported its impoverished citizens outside of Rio de Janeiro, a glamorous tourist magnet. This new place of residency was a distant housing project of shabby slums, ironically titled City of God. In this begotten neighborhood the police rarely emerge (except to occasionally pick dead people’’s pockets) and crime has become rampant. A mixture of poverty and an overabundance of guns and testosterone have bred a culture of criminals where teenagers populate ruthless gangs.

Our story focuses on Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues) narrating the rise, and many falls, of all the flashy thugs of the City of God and the ripples they create in the community. He’s a young boy who is too scrawny to be a hoodlum like his older brother Goose. His brother belongs to a gang known as the Tender Trio, who are used to hijacking propane tanks for small gain. They get the idea to knock off a brothel at the urging of Li’l Dice, a younger kid with ambition and a heart like a stone. After the successful robbery Li’l Dice cleans up after the Trio, sifting through the brothel killing everyone inside and laughing insidiously.

The murder spree has long lasting effects, with each member of the Tender Trio finding an untimely end. Li’l Dice grows from calculating child into a big-time burgeoning cruel gangster, who now calls himself Li’l Ze (Leandro Firmino De Hora Phellipe). Ze has climbed to the level of kingpin the most pragmatic way possible: systematically eliminating all of the competition. Ze attains reign over the city. He instructs others not to do anything to arouse the outside police (the locals are paid off), and thus has made the City of God a safe place for rich tourists to drive in and purchase their drugs. It seems that Ze ruling by fear has brought newfound safety and prosperity.

Rocket’’s path is quite different. As he matures into a teenager he discovers a love of photography. His attempts at a life of crime are short-lived; he simply likes his victims too much to rob them. Ze has Rocket take pictures of his gang strutting their machismo that eventually gets published onto the front page of a newspaper. Rocket’s reaction is that he thinks his death certificate has been signed. Ze’’s reaction is delight. Li’l Ze’’s great weakness is his self-believed sexual inadequacy. When turned down by a girl he seeks out her good-looking boyfriend, Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge), and humiliates him. He terrorizes Ned, raping his girlfriend in front of him and inspiring him to long bloodthirsty battles of vengeance against Ze that will engulf the City of God.

A complaint that could be levied against City of God is the numbing effect of its violence. The gangsters in this film aren’’t the mustache-twirling types of Gangs of New York, but merely kids. This isn’’t any kind of glamorized Hollywood gun battle. When these kids get hit their bodies go limp; they drop to the ground in weeping masses. The film’s message of the hereditary nature of barbarism is clear. One of the amazing parts of the film is that it was mainly filmed in the actual City of God and uses a cast almost entirely of non-actors.

City of God is a loud announcement to the world of the arrival of a fresh, invigorating and monumental talent with director Fernando Meirelles. The visual flair he utilizes to advance his storyline is amazing yet never falters into the land of gimmickry. The narrative folds in on itself time-wise (much like Tarantino films) yet rhythmically connects the numerous lives and history of the City of God in one lustrous and captivating tapestry of urban decay. A fantastic example is a scene that chronicles the entire history of one apartment and the origins of the entrance of drugs in one un-moving shot. Imagine the Natalie Imbruglia “Torn” video but with drugs and guns.

There is one sequence of crushing emotional power that has been burned into my memory. The sequence involves a bawling child, no older than seven, being forced to decide where he would rather be shot, in his foot or his tiny trembling hand as punishment for his mischief. The reality of City of God is a harrowing one. As you can clearly see, City of God is not for the weak. The movie has its definite squirm-worthy moments of discomfort and will not be a good choice if you and your date are looking for that perfect weekend movie. This is a difficult movie to sit through at times, and the reality can be grim and uncompromising, but City of God is rewarding in respect to the amazing narrative and visual accomplishments. This is an unforgettable film.

The film piles on the body count while at the same time advancing a pacifist message between the bursts of adrenaline and bullets. Meirelles’’ film will leave your jaw dropped to the floor by its sprawling complexity. This is what great filmmaking is all about. City of God is one of those movies that once you’’ve left the theater you excitedly claim, “Now that’s why I see movies.” City of God is simply a cinematic masterpiece and not only the best film I’’d seen in 2003 but also one of the best movies I’’ve seen in my life.

Nate’s Grade: A+

About natezoebl

One man. Many movies. I am a cinephile (which spell-check suggests should really be "epinephine"). I was told that a passion for movies was in his blood since I was conceived at a movie convention. While scientifically questionable, I do remember a childhood where I would wake up Saturday mornings, bounce on my parents' bed, and watch Siskel and Ebert's syndicated TV show. That doesn't seem normal. At age 17, I began writing movie reviews and have been unable to stop ever since. I was the co-founder and chief editor at (2007-2014) and now write freelance. I have over 1400 written film reviews to my name and counting. I am also a proud member of the Central Ohio Film Critics Association (COFCA) since 2012. In my (dwindling) free time, I like to write uncontrollably. I wrote a theatrical genre mash-up adaptation titled "Our Town... Attacked by Zombies" that was staged at my alma mater, Capital University in the fall of 2010 with minimal causalities and zero lawsuits. I have also written or co-written sixteen screenplays and pilots, with one of those scripts reviewed on industry blog Script Shadow. Thanks to the positive exposure, I am now also dipping my toes into the very industry I've been obsessed over since I was yea-high to whatever people are yea-high to in comparisons.

Posted on March 16, 2003, in 2003 Movies and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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