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City Of God (R)
Official Site
Director: Fernando Meirelles
Producers: Andrea Barata Ribeiro, Mauricio Andrade Ramos
Written by: Braulio Mantovani
Cast: Matheus Nachtergaele, Seu Jorge, Alexandre Rodrigues, Leandro Firmino da Hora, Phelipe Haagensen, Douglas Silva, Roberta Rodriguez Silva, Luis Otavio

Rating: out of 5

Welcome to the favelas of Brazil, places where basic utilities are unreliable or non-existent and police only patrol in armed platoons—the kinds of places that definitely don’t show up in any travel brochures. Set during the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, the movie’s drug dealers and petty thieves rise and fall; only the location remains constant.

The story is told through the eyes of Rocket, who grows from boy (Otavio) to man (Rodrigues) during the course of the film. Rocket has enough sense to want a life as a photographer rather than following in his brother’s footsteps to a life of petty crime and untimely demise. Rocket watches as his bloodthirsty peer Li’l Dice (Silva) grows up to be an even more bloodthirsty young man known as Li’l Ze (Firmino da Hora). Li’l Ze kills his way to the top of the drug trade in the ’70s, establishing himself as the de facto leader of the city. In the last act Li’l Ze antagonizes rival drug lord Carrot (Nachtergaele) and former soldier Knockout Ned (Jorge), overextending his resources and starting a street war with an army of children as the foot soldiers.

Fernando Meirelles is smart enough not to let Rocket’s story ever eclipse the events taking place in the city. His cast is handpicked from the children from the favelas and shot on location with the permission of local community “leaders.” This helps keep the movie grounded and removes doubt of any embellishments on the director’s part. The young child actors play their parts, shooting each other and robbing everyone else with zeal. When one boy, desperate for gang membership, proclaims, “I smoke, I snort, I’ve killed and robbed. I’m a man!” he says it with such conviction that it raises the question of exactly how much acting is going on. Meirelles also uses hand-held cameras to keep with that urban feel, but this trick does not work to the film’s advantage.

Think Goodfellas without the glamour and you have City Of God. When Li’l Ze is on top of the world as undisputed king of the city he still doesn’t own a car, can’t afford to move out, and is unable to operate a camera. Li’l Ze is very much a star in hell during the idyllic ’70s, but he, Rocket, and the rest of the characters seem to forget this. The characters and Li’l Ze especially are at the highest plane of Dante’s Inferno, preparing to transcend their demonic origins. When the gang war starts, everyone is snapped back to the reality that God abandoned this city long ago. The characters begin their descent into bottomless perdition.

The novelty of the location is only half of the appeal of City Of God. The other half comes from its large cast of characters whose stories are inextricably bound to the city. All walks of life get examined, from lowly street couriers and drug addicts to the mighty drug kingpins and yes, even the hopeless innocents who just want to go about their business. Toward the finale the film treads dangerously close to cliché, but it only serves to remind us that these sayings bear a kernel of truth. We are constantly warned of the inescapable conclusion to a life of crime and Knockout Ned is an embodiment of a man consumed by rage. In the end the war is over and a new gang of kids is in charge, but we know that it won’t be long before another group of still younger children makes a play for power, creating another chapter in the unending cycle of violence. City Of God is disturbing, but it tells a story worth telling, making it easy to recommend and impossible to forget.

—Woodrow Bogucki


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