Lionsgate // 2002 // 130 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Russell Engebretson (Retired) // December 12th, 2011
15 miles from paradise...one man will do anything to tell the world everything.
Director Fernando Meirelles' City of God, based on a book by Paulo Lins, is a film of juvenile gangsterism in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro that spans the 1960s to the 1980s. The central character and narrator, Buscapé (Alexandre Rodrigues) , neatly sums up the dire situation in the favelas after a decade plus of gang war: "What should have been swift revenge turned into an all out war. The City of God was divided. You couldn't go from one section to the other, not even to visit a relative. The cops considered anyone living in the slum a hoodlum. People got used to living in Vietnam, and more and more volunteers signed up to die."
The movie opens with an outdoor celebration in the favela hosted by the notorious gang leader, Li'l Zé (Leandro Fermino). As chickens are slaughtered and grilled for the feast, a single pullet makes a lucky escape and flees down the street with gun-toting gangsters in merry pursuit. Aspiring photojournalist Buscapé (who goes by the moniker of Rocket), finds himself unexpectedly caught in the middle of a standoff between the gangsters and a large contingent of policemen. By way of flashback to his childhood in the sixties, Rocket narrates the story of how he, the gangs, and the police came to this pass.
Rocket begins with the story of a few inept hoodlums (one of them his older brother) who go by the name of The Tender Trio. They are residents of a government project created to house the flood of immigrants forced to relocate from the countryside to the city. The barren slum-in-the-making where they live is fertile ground for the creation of an impoverished underclass, some of whom turn to theft, dealing pot, and other criminal activities. Following a botched robbery, The Tender Trio part ways and eventually come to a sticky end.
As the sixties segue into the eighties, the innocuous delights of pot give way to the hard-edged rush of cocaine, and the happy-go-lucky heists of The Tender Trio morph into vicious murder and rapine as Li'l Zé rises to power and pits his followers against the only other surviving gang leader, Carrot (Matheus Nachtergaele).
The film introduces a host of characters whose lives are shaped by their circumstances and interactions with one another: Li'l Zé's only friend, Benny, who one day decides to become a playboy; bus driver turned bank robber, Knockout Ned; the gorgeous Angelica, Rocket's object of teenage lust. Some of the stories are fleshed out, while others are fleeting, but all contribute to the beautifully realized history of oppression and violence in the Brazilian favelas of Rio de Janeiro.
City of God is mesmerizing, shockingly brutal, and massively entertaining. It delivers the high-octane, comic book punch of Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, melded with a stylishly daring cinematography reminiscent of Scorsese's Casino. The film's visual style is hotly kinetic, restless, and relentlessly in-your-face. The tone of the movie is set with the opening scene of a knife sharpened across a whetstone, flashing between blackness and a silver blur, to the pounding rhythm of a Samba melody. Battle scenes feature gunshots that briefly illuminate faces and ramshackle slum dwellings; a swirl of flash-cuts, quick fade-outs, and fast pans dominate. When the movie occasionally slows down, the stillness is filled with a breath-holding undercurrent of tension. We know something bad is lurking in the wings, but not when it will spring forth or who will suffer. The only time one feels truly at ease is in the rare scene outside of the favela, where people are not armed with deadly weapons. One such scene is when Rocket spends some time in a newspaper office, and later in an apartment with a female member of the newspaper staff. There are some humorous bits scattered about the story, too: Rocket's unsuccessful seduction attempts, and Benny's playboy phase, for instance; but the movie is predominantly a drama and violent thriller.
What sets this movie's violence apart from gangster epics such as Scarface or Goodfellas is the extreme youth of its gang members. The "godfathers" in this film are in their twenties, and the youngest are preteens. Even obscured from view, it rattled me to see a kid of twelve years or younger murdered in cold blood. But that's what helps to make this a great film: it does not flinch. The depiction of the slums and the people who are forced to live in them feels real. We know that an exit from the favelas is an impossibility for nearly all its residents. It is the rare individual, as in Rocket's case, who manages an escape through a combination of luck and smart choices -- but in the end, as with the chicken, it comes down almost entirely to luck.
The 1.78:1/1080p City of God (Blu-ray) AVC video encode is a big jump in quality from the DVD. Some distant shots are soft, but the close-ups -- and quite a few of the medium shots -- are highly detailed. There is one scene early in the movie with two boys at a swimming hole (one in the water and one seated in a tree) that is soft and blurry with color haloing around the edges of the tree branches. That's the worst scene I found, and not representative of the rest of the film. The color palette contains warm reds and browns, but leans toward cool whites and blue with a fair amount of dark scenes and crisp, high contrast photography. Shadow detail is generally good. It's an all-around pleasing picture. The audio is even better, sporting a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track that is not afraid to use the rear speakers. The Samba tunes (and a couple of James Brown tracks) are full and lively, with solidly anchored bass and clear treble. Dialogue and sound effects are exceptionally clear and well-balanced so that gunshots and crowd noises do not muffle the more subtle sound effects. It's a considerable upgrade from the earlier Dolby Digital soundtrack.
The only extra on the Blu-ray is the same one found on the DVD, a 57 minute documentary called News From a Personal War that features interviews with police, as well as residents and gangsters in the favelas. Most of the footage was filmed in the slums, and though it's a rather low quality video, this historical document of the slum and its inhabitants is thoroughly engaging.
Even though most of the violence in City of God is artfully hidden by camera technique and skillful editing, leaving the graphic brutality to the viewer's imagination, it is still an emotionally draining film to watch, and not for the faint-of-heart. However, it is also broader and deeper than your average gangster flick. There is pointed social criticism present if one cares to pay close attention. Because the intense action sequences and condensed history can be overwhelming, repeat viewings will reveal subtle nuances that are easily missed the first time around. A Blu-ray purchase is well worth an upgrade from the DVD for fans of the movie.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (Portuguese)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 130 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Rated R