City Of God Movie Review

I wouldn't know to complain if you told me we were having coffee in a part of town called "City of God," what with its vague St. Augustine allusions and all. But after watching the Brazilian film of the same name, I think I'm supposed to add it to the list of neighborhoods that represent the combined failures of local government, law & order, and perhaps the human race: South Boston, Trenchtown in the Jamaican capitol of Kingston, East St. Louis, and South Central Los Angeles. We group them on an imagined Most Wanted list of places we'd never go, streets and sidewalks where we think getting killed might be as likely as tripping over the curb.

Rocket, City of God's young protagonist agrees, even though he grew up there. His story spans two decades (as far as I can tell, from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s) in this arid housing project 15 miles outside of Rio De Janeiro, beginning with him as a child looking up to the local hoods as they rob delivery trucks, and ending with him photographing them for the local newspaper as they kill each other. And while there were good times, Rocket's narration indicates that he doesn't miss them much. "This is where the politicians dump their garbage", he says. "Criminals? Homeless families? Pack 'em up and send them to City of God!"

The bitter redemption of that statement is partly the point, since, as Rocket narrates in flashback, the implication is that the violence of his surroundings hasn't claimed him. That he's lived to tell this story reaffirms that we mostly find out about places like this via the writers, filmmakers, and musicians who escaped, rather than from policymakers and the nightly news. Quick quiz: Where did you first hear about South Central? From Ted Koppel or Ice Cube?

Writer Paulo Lins grew up in City of God and spent eight years researching the novel that backbones the film. "Based on a true story," it begins with Rocket's small group of friends and his older brother who belongs to the Tender Trio, the most respected hoods around. A new kid, Lil' Duce, wants to be like them when he grows up and begins using the gun stuffed in his waistband, which every kid that can walk seems to have. When a motel robbery goes wrong and several members of the gang are killed, Robert promises his brother that he won't end up the same way.

Flash forward a decade and Lil' Duce is now Lil Ze', the most feared drug dealer in City of God, with Benny, their mutual friend, as his lieutenant. Benny keeps Lil Ze's explosive temper in check as best he can and Robert out of its way. But a rivalry has boiled over with another gang that has also enveloped Knockout Ned, an honest bus-toll collector who Ze' crossed, as well as an army of neighborhood kids who heave Molotov cocktails and kill as efficiently as the grownups they think they are. The result is a year worth of bloody gunfire, where neighbors choose sides based on as little as who pissed them off that day.

Good Kids in a Lawless World is an old plot but a serviceable one. And though the central story of City of God is nothing new, director Fernando Meirelles doesn't let his actors gather dust. He shoots them small against the dusty, baking streets, which keeps the performances visually understated and cuts between different characters' stories to keep any one of them from upstaging the other. Even the showiest roles like Leandro Firmino da Hora's (cobra-like as the villian Ze') are written and played with an eye towards being part of an ensemble rather than the main event. Thus we never see them as performances. Just people.

In an arguable misstep, Meirelles doesn't make the same choice with the rest of his visual style, which is too flashy for the material. Whip pans and oblique angles abound echoing several of my favorite blaxploitation films, as well as the Jimmy Cliff cult fave The Harder They Come. The idea might be to visually illustrate the influence of American black culture on the kids in Brazil (Meirelles undoubtedly knows his Dolomite, and soul and disco music is all over the soundtrack) but I question whether it's a good fit in a film where a 10-year old kid is ordered to shoot a toddler to prove his loyalty. City of God earns those moments when they come but the style seems to be saying too often that it's all in good fun.

Be that as it may, if you've spent more than one Saturday afternoon getting drenched in blood from the likes of Scorsese and Peckinpah, then you've already been to City of God and enjoyed yourself. But that doesn't mean you won't feel something again and appreciate it. And the capacity to separate first reaction from honest emotion, in this world, is also the split second that divides walking off its streets alive and lying dead in them.

Aka Cidade de Deus.

Doesn't look that bad...


Comments

City Of God Rating

" Good "

Rating: R, 2002

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