City of God (2002)
Release Date: August 31st, 2002 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Fernando Meirelles, Katia Lund Actors: Alexandre Rodrigues, Leandro Firmino da Hora, Phellipe Haagensen, Douglas Silva, Seu Jorge, Alice Braga, Jonathan Haagensen
ity of God” (originally “Cidade de Deus”) is a powerful, darkly skewed coming-of-age film that peerlessly makes use of its obscure setting and striking authenticity. Based on a true story that would appear frighteningly real even if pure fiction, and with a cast that is astonishingly genuine (most of the participants were not actors at all), director Fernando Meirelles has crafted a stunning portrait of persevering life in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. And with hip editing to embellish the documentary tone, his picture screams of cinematic entertainment with a Hollywood aesthetic.
Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues) narrates about how he ended up right in the middle of a gunfight with the craziest gang in the favelas of Rio de Janiero and the crooked policemen governing the chaotic city. His tale is set in a Brazilian shantytown that sees children heavily armed and drug dealers ruling the streets of extreme poverty and crime. Starting at the end and then going back to the beginning (the 1960s), filling the audience in on each of the characters that will eventually interact in an explosive conclusion, Rocket tells the story of the Tender Trio, a group of three young men who rob gas trucks for thrills and a bit of spending money. When Li’l Ze (Leandro Firmino da Hora), a young troublemaker who is anxious to wield guns and deal drugs, suggests that they rob a brothel, the threesome ends up on the run from the police. They eventually decide to live semi-honest lives, but, as Rocket explains, “once a hood, always a hood.”
Years pass (the 1970s) and Li’l Ze grows up to be a treacherous and greedy man who seeks to take over the whole town – firstly by murdering his drug-dealing competitors. His right-hand man, Benny (Phellipe Haagensen), tries to keep him calm, but soon Li’l Ze becomes so power-hungry that no one can stop him from conquering the entirety of the slums. Ironically, the shantytown becomes safer because Ze won’t allow theft or assault in his area; the cops stay on his payroll but out of his territory. It’s not long, however, before a slowly rising gang of children called “The Runts” begins to cause problems for the townsfolk and the drug dominions. All the while, Rocket attempts to stay out of the gang wars, focusing instead on photography and an internship with a local newspaper.
“City of God’s” narrative unfolds through Rocket’s careful observations, oftentimes going back in time to reiterate an event, freezing the frame to discuss a character, or titling certain segments to break them into chapters. With so many significant roles, this strategy helps to sort everything out, as each persona usually receives a complete history and synopsis of what part they play in the bedraggled housing project degeneration. As each character’s story collides in a tensely unpredictable conclusion, the audience is completely involved with the heroes, villains, and sidekicks who have been individually fleshed out and analyzed. No cookie-cutter character development enters this picture. And viewers will also become well educated on the drug business.
Young children, sometimes not yet teenagers, are seen toting machineguns and revolvers and killing and stealing without a second thought. The use of violence towards kids caused by kids is eye-opening and horrifying, as are the drastic displays of drugs and gangs that take the place of food and families. All the odds of Rocket’s survival in this city of brutality are against him, but his true redemption is in his ability to envision a different reality. Through an artist’s point of view he merely captures and comments on events, not really affecting the order of situations or changing their course, yet still doubtlessly caught up in the severity of each moment. With his perspective – the last semblance of normalcy amidst socioeconomic decay – the audience can effectively distinguish the many complex layers of faltering humanity that struggle to win out in an environment condemned to unceasing moral corruptions.
– Mike Massie