Miramax // 2002 // 130 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // October 4th, 2004
"I smoke, I snort, I've killed and robbed. I'm a man."
Currently ranked #23 on the Internet Movie Database's "Top 250" list, above cinematic classics like Lawrence of Arabia and Psycho, City of God will be one of the best films you ever have the pleasure of seeing.
Yes, it's just that good. Period.
In the 1960s, flooding and homelessness forced the undesirables of Rio de Janeiro onto the streets of the city, much to the chagrin of local government. Concerned that the growing population of miscreants would disrupt the picture-perfect postcard of Brazil's hottest tourist destination, the solution was to construct cheap housing on the outskirts of town, round up the homeless, and toss them into the "housing project" With no paved roads, no electricity, no plumbing, and no transportation, conditions were less than ideal in Cidade de Deus, AKA the City of God, and in no time at all, it became one of the worst slums in the world.
For the young, life in the City of God could take three paths: you either became police officers, criminals, or menial workers forced into the lowliest of repetitive jobs. For this reason, crime became a particularly appealing and glamorous vocation. The older boys, fancying themselves as gangsters and hoodlums of the highest caliber, begin robbing trucks for propane and holding up the occasional hotel in town. Rocket, the small brother of one of the more glamorous and successful thugs, tells the tale of his brother's little gang, and becomes our narrator. He finds he is not mean-spirited enough to be a criminal, not tough enough to be a police officer, and too smart to subject himself to menial work. His path, he seems to realize, is convoluted and unclear.
But the other boys his age have no problem whatsoever with a life of crime. One of the small boys, L'il Dice, attaches onto the group and tries to prove his manliness; he desperately wants to be the toughest gangster in town. As the boys grow up, Rocket manages to avoid, for the most part, a life of crime, while L'il Dice revels in it. Gradually, as a teenager, L'il Dice becomes the toughest hood in the City of God, and by the early 1980s, takes over the drug trade with blitzkrieg efficiency and savage ferocity. Soon, he runs the entire slums.
City of God follows Rocket through the years into adolescence, where he flirts with the idea of becoming a gangster, but ultimately finds he cannot muster the cruelty required. Instead, with a beaten-up, stolen camera, he discovers photography, and it offers him an alternative to a life of thievery and crime. He takes a job at a newspaper in order to escape the life of the slums. Through flashback, Rocket tells the tale of the City of God through a camera's lens, pointed by a teenager boy and the madness that surrounds him every day. He chronicles the crime, the friendships, the lifestyles, the drugs, the death, the police, and every other aspect of living in the City of God through a journalist's eye, as a way of escaping the carnage, trying to disassociate from it through cold objectivity.
Objectivity flies straight out the window, however, when a photo of L'il Zé (the re-named L'il Dice) and his crew accidentally ends up on the front page of his newspaper. With the most powerful gang in the City of God brandishing their weapons flamboyantly in full view, Rocket realizes he may have gone too far. After all, L'il Zé has killed people for simply crossing the street in front of him...how will he react to seeing his gang on the front page of the news? Rocket, trying to escape the violence of the City of God, realizes with horror that he may have signed his own death warrant...
City of God is a staggering film in every sense of the word -- you are overwhelmed with emotion and astonishment to the point where you cannot walk or stand up. Brilliantly conceived, expertly directed, stunningly beautiful, heartbreaking, and terrifying all at the same time, there exist so few film experiences like City of God that combine the artistic impact of a knockout performance in directing, acting, story and characters while simultaneously having genuine emotional resonance from real-life events. Watching City of God is like finding a diamond in a haystack; the sheer beauty of the treasure is almost overshadowed by the sheer delight and shock of having discovered it. When I first came out of the movie theater, catching the film during its first limited theatrical run, I was convinced I had seen the best movie of my life.
Okay, in retrospect, I may have been slightly dramatic making that claim...but nevertheless, I maintain that City of God is one of the finest films I have ever had the pleasure of seeing. This is the kind of film that Gangs of New York so desperately wanted to be: a sweeping epic story of a city in conflict and turmoil, about gangs and the politics and friendships therein, a film about an environment spanning the years with devastating emotional impact and social relevance. Many film critics have likened Fernando Meirelles, the young director of City of God, as something of a Brazillian Martin Scorsese and have compared this film to Goodfellas in tone, inflection, filmmaking style, and presentation, though I find the comparison to Gangs of New York more apt.
Oh yes...did I mention this was a great movie? Because holy crap, this is a good movie. Just for the record.
Director Meirelles is a master of his form from the opening sequence; a knife being sharpened ominously on a stone, edited between images of chickens looking dazed and confused. From the first frame, the film flies out of the gates. The editing, a quick-cut, ultra-modern fast paced style jangles the nerves and sets a tone of feverish excitement, and the directorial style, while not original in presentation, simply borrows heavily from others in a marvelous hodge-podge of quick cuts, Matrix-esque spin-a-rounds, split-screen camera shots, and other such trickery. While the style itself is heavily derivative, the director has assembled it marvelously into a seamless, organic presentation that feels astonishingly vibrant and original. The film itself, told mostly in flashback, is comprised of small vignettes and sequences, each centering on a person, a place, or an event, all narrated by Rocket. More interestingly, certain sequences stop halfway through, are abandoned by the narrator, and picked up later on, when the audience has been clued in on some vital piece of information. Stories are often told again, from a different point of view or a different character's view. The effect makes City of God feel like a true confessional; like a story that comes pouring out, the order doesn't always make sense, and the teller often backtracks, or clarifies, or simply jumps ahead as they see fit. The narrator sees his world with honesty, objectivity, and a surprising amount of humor and levity, all things considered.
On its own, City of God is a powerhouse of a film, but even more astonishing is the realization that this film is based on true events, on actual people painting a realistic/autobiographical picture of life in the ghetto. Certain scenes were reconstructed from newspaper photographs depicting real-life carnage and slaughter in the slum, and news sequences were re-created shot-for-shot to add authenticity. Perhaps even more amazing is that almost all the actors in this film were complete amateurs, recruited from the actual City of God in Rio de Janeiro. Lead actors Leandro Firmino (L'il Zé) and Alexandre Rodrigues (Rocket) give amazing performances on their own, but knowing that they grew up in the slums themselves only intensify the authenticity of their characters. Simply put, the acting in this film is nothing short of astonishing, even more so when considering the large majority of the actors are barely teenagers. In fact, this hard-hitting authenticity so accurately depicted the hopelessness, the squalor, and the violence of the inescapable ghetto that it actually brought about a certain level of reform by the government. After the film exploded on the international scene, in response to the spotlight bearing down on their embarrassing lack of involvement, the newly elected Brazilian majority actually instituted progressive reform to try and clean things up in the City of God. How cool is that?
City of God, given its subject matter, is not without its controversy, and not without a large following of detractors, cynics, and mudslingers debunking the film for its graphic depiction of violence. Funny thing is, the violence in City of God is far less graphic that you would imagine it to be. In fact, very little is shown on-screen. Rather, the violence is in the subtle undertone of every action, in every reaction that the characters make. The nostalgic troublemaking and glamorous thievery that Rocket half-idolizes growing up in the 1960s soon degrades into the cold, cruel, and brutal drug wars of the 1980s, and we watch, powerless, as the film rapidly descends into madness, violence, and the brutality of an all-out gang war waged by children. This last element, the violence depicting children, is especially uncomfortable for many. No doubt about it, the kids in this movie are frightening -- like Children Of The Corn creepy -- and they drink, swear, curse, and shoot people with guns with a primal savagery that makes your guts go twisty. True, the film's unapologetic frankness can easily be mistaken for callous cruelty, but to dismiss City of God this way sells the film short. The children exhibit savagery that is born from life on the streets, where most of their friends will never live to the age of twenty. Put frankly, the things that you bring away from City of God are not easy to digest, but the film balances gracefully on the knife-edge of sensationalism and exploitation, never dipping to either side. The morals of the film are complex, and drawing a line between right and wrong, between good and bad is a difficult task. The film stays real, honest, brutal, and moving, never using violence to cheapen the experience.
There is no proper way to articulate the gut-wrenching feeling of watching a movie in a comfortable living room, knowing that in other parts of the world, childhood debates are settled with guns, and eight-year-old kids sell crack on the street. To put it simply: that just ain't right. Even the worst neighborhoods of North America represent a higher standard of living, potential, and freedom than the oppressive poverty of other countries. This is not an easy thing to come face-to-face with fictionally in a film, let alone when the events are based on reality. Watching children gun each other down over gang territory, drugs, and out of sheer boredom is frightening and disturbing to anyone who has a central nervous system. The real City of God is a frighteningly despondent place, a soul-crushing, body-rending machine that destroys everything in its path. Escaping the city is as hard as surviving a day in its winding, filthy streets. And now we come to the heart of the film. Not merely about the crime, the violence, the brutality, or even the city itself, in a deeper sense, City of God is a film about rejecting destiny, about finding a new path. From the beginning, we meet a narrator who is fated to become a gangster, having been born into a desperate and violent environment from which there is no escape of any kind. His destiny is sealed...and yet, inconceivably, he struggles against massive social, political, economic, and cultural pressures that force him to stay subservient to his own dreams and desires. This is an incalculably difficult task; after all, if a ghetto were easily escapable, who would choose to live there?
From a technical standpoint, Miramax has treated City of God with the respect it deserves, almost. The transfer is sharp and conservative; blacks are dark, but could easily be darker, while the sharpness of the image is undercut slightly by the general, documentary-style graininess of the picture itself. Colors filter between the icy blues and grays of nighttime sequences to the blistering oranges and greens of daylight shots, and look fantastic. A tiny suggestion of jagged edges crop up now and again, along with some small amounts of shimmering edges, but overall, Miramax has done a bang-up job on this transfer, which is crystal-clear save for the occasional white spot of dust now and again. In terms of audio, this movie definitely excels. A Dolby 5.1 track (in original Brazilian Portuguese) is included, and like the video transfer, is also mixed rather conservatively. Bass response is excellent yet reserved, and the track makes great use of its dynamic space, placing environmental noises, sound effects, and music into the rear channels, constantly shifting and moving. It creates a fantastic feeling of being surrounded by all angles by the city. Almost all dialogue comes through the center channels, and words always come through cleanly and crisply. The subtitles are free from major defects or grammatical incongruities, which is always nice. The soundtrack, a funky mix of samba, jazz, funk, and Brazilian tunes makes up for its randomness with its sheer level of energy and intensity. All in all, this is a great audio presentation.
Only a single supplementary feature is included on this DVD, but it's a goodie. The hour-long feature "News From A Personal War" takes an in-depth and intimate look into the real City of God and meets the people that inhabit the desolate slums...the policeman who invade it, the criminals that control it, and the people who inhabit it, living in fear of both sides. A fantastically compelling documentary on its own, it has the added emotional impact of confirming that yes, in fact, these events did happen, and that there really is a City of God. The revelation is a disturbing one in its own right. Though a single extra feature is a bit on the light side, the dropkick-to-your-head intensity and overall quality of the featurette more than makes up for it.
Methinks Miramax could have done more with this DVD. The presentation simply does not do the film justice...not by any fault of the presentation itself, but rather, because the film simply deserves more. The transfer, while excellent, is not as bodacious as it could have been, and a film like this screams for a director's commentary track and more extra content. This is the kind of movie with enough clout to warrant a two-disc edition; especially considering Miramax held back on releasing the DVD for months after the film garnished four Oscar nominations. Though there is nothing really wrong with this DVD, in my eyes, there was no reason not to overload this feature and push it as one of the best films of the year, and for Miramax to give it the stellar presentation it truly deserved.
Forget renting...City of God will be one of the best blind buys you ever make. The film is funny, moving, epic in its grandeur and sincerity, depressing, frightening...in fact, just about every human emotion that can be experienced shows up at least once in this film. I really cannot recommend this film strongly enough, and I have yet to meet anyone who has not been blown away by this film.
In summation: buy it buy it buy it buy it buy it buy it buy it. Buy it!
If this court had the authority to order every man, woman and ch -- well, not children, but if we could make everyone watch City of God, I would hereby order it immediately.
I guess you'll just have to take my word for it. Get it now.
Review content copyright © 2004 Adam Arseneau; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Portuguese)
Running Time: 130 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* "News From A Personal War" Featurette