#85 City Of God
(Cidade de Deus)
(2002, Fernando Meirelles & Katia Lund)
“Fight and you’ll never survive, run and you’ll never escape”
There’s something odd about certain film markets outside of the larger US/European/East Asian markets constantly producing movies set in the ghetto. We’ve seen it in Tsotsi from South Africa and Amores Perros from Mexico (although at least that featured a segment focused on more well-off characters to provide an interesting contrast), and now, here’s Brazil’s City of God. How does this one compare?
Set in the titular City Of God district of Rio, the movie opens with a party being broken up with the escape of a live chicken, which is chased down the street into a confrontation between a gang and the police. In the middle of these two groups is photographer Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues as an adult/Luis Otavio as a child), who is the narrator for much of our story. It immediately flashes back to his childhood, providing the stories of many different residents caught up in a gang war.
However, these many stories create a bit of a structural problem for City Of God. While the plot is good at its heart, the fact that we’re trying to follow several different characters throughout means that things get a muddy as the film progresses. The way we jump from one character is kind of disorientating, and the movie has a terrible way of introducing characters then saying “it’s not time for his story yet, but we’ll get to it”. It felt a little disjointed, particularly in the opening scenes of the movie, which leap from Rocket’s present to his childhood, then from his perspective to the character of Shaggy (Jonathan Haagensen) then to his gang within the opening ten minutes.
This technique of telling a single story via lots of little stories that interconnect sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. Aside from those opening ten minutes, it was also jarring to constantly return to the same scene three times from different angles by individually telling the stories of Rocket getting weed for the girl he wanted to sleep with, the drug dealer’s apartment he went to visit and then the vicious gang leader Lil Ze’s (Leandro Firmino Da Hora) rise to power, all culminating in the same scene. All the constant callbacks and scene shifts at unexpected moments felt like reading some kind of Wikipedia article about a gang war and clicking every single link along the way.
An instance where it does work is in the character of Knockout Ned, whose story is brought to our attention more subtly, first by introducing him as a simple bus conductor and only returning to him when characters we’re already following cross his path under less savoury circumstances. However, this still suffered from Rocket going “by the way, this is Knockout Ned, he’ll be important later”.
City Of God is not a bad film though. The plot, when it manages to drive forward without jumping around, is both an exciting story of a gang war and a great character study for all of the residents of the slums. It’s an achievement that even with all these characters, they’re all well-developed, with just a couple of exceptions. As the de facto protagonist, Rocket feels slightly underdeveloped, a simple “good guy” who wants to be a photographer, and even then his photography career (initially seemingly central to the plot) only takes off in the last half hour of the movie. I would have also liked more insight into why Lil Ze was such a sadistic man, but I suppose that would have involved more jumping around the timeline again.
I also have great praise for some of the directorial choices here. There’s a lot of intelligent cinematography on offer, such as showing Lil Ze growing up through a series of killings shown down the barrel of a gun, or the spinning camera shot that sends us back to the past in the opening scenes. I also loved some of the more subtle framing choices, and the death of a key character lit entirely by strobe light serves to heighten the drama of the entire scene. I have no complaints on the technical front.
Overall, apart from shaky plot structuring, City Of God is a fantastic film, and certainly a better film than the two comparable films I mentioned in my initial paragraph. A smart, interesting addition to the foreign ghetto film category.
Oh, and whoever put together the subtitles for the Miramax PAL DVD copy I worked from needs to be fired. Just thought I’d throw that out there.
Starring Matheus Nachtergaele, Alexandre Rodrigues, Leandro Firmino Da Hora, Jonathan Haagensen, Phellipe Haagensen, Douglas Silva, Daniel Zeitel & Seu Jorge
Written by Paulo Lins (novel) & Braulio Mantovani
Produced by Andrea Barata Ribeiro & Maurico Andrade Ramos
Music score by Antonio Pinto & Ed Cortes
Cinematography by Cesar Charlone
Edited by Daniel Rezende
Favourite Scene: Benny’s party is a fantastic scene. You know something’s going to kick off, but the movie keeps you guessing, and the final strobe-lit death scene is harrowing
Scene That Bugged Me: That same scene in the drug dealer’s apartment that we visit three times. It actually gets kinda repetitive.
Watch it if: You like tales of gang warfare
Avoid it if: Repeating scenes get on your nerves