City of God
15 miles from paradise... one man will do anything to tell the world everything.
Director Fernando Meirelle’s City of God surpasses the standard gang warfare epic. Set in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, the film is told from the perspective of the slum’s alarmingly ferocious children, who double as both its underclass and its criminal overlords. The effect is a tense pacey thriller with all the exhilarating violence of gang culture, coupled with the poignancy of the corruption and degradation of children by the dizzying grimness and inhumanity of the favela.
City of God chronicles a suburb favela, a hopeless housing project for the impoverished, through two decades of dysfunctional chaos and fractured community. The plot focalizes on Rocket and Li’l Zé, bereft of childhood, as they chillingly deal, steal and murder. As children, and later young adults, these characters are wholly disturbing and hard to relate to. The greatest facet of this coming of age tale is the pervading symbolism that manifests itself in darkly comic interludes. Look out for the chicken in the opening scene, a symbol of how vulgar life has become, the sacrificial purpose of the chicken demonstrates how victimhood is complicit with aggression.
Indeed Meirelle’s film is a compelling social commentary; the irony of the favela as a social help scheme is barely felt, most pressing is the space as a degenerate scene of entrapment. The absence of adults in the film portrays slum existence for the children as a macabre game of violence, terror and wretched loyalty. It is worth noting the tag line of the film; “if you run, the beast catches; if you stay, the beast eats”.
It is the 1960s in the City of God, a lower class shanty town in Rio de Janeiro. Three young hoodlums, calling themselves The Tender Trio, are robbing motels and gas trucks. The kids of the town watch the Trio, learn from them and dream of one day becoming even more daring robbers. Two of the keenest young criminals are Li’l Zé (Firmino) and Benny (Haagensen). With some help from The Tender Trio, the two make quick progress. But not all of the city's youngsters are sucked into the world of crime. One of them, a kid named Rocket (Rodrigues), observes a news photographer covering a crime scene, and decides to become one himself. However, as he reaches for his goal, Li’l Zé beats and shoots his way up to the top of the criminal world and takes control of the town.
There is plenty of room for love, friendship, money, drugs, blood and revenge in City of God. And the director does a splendid job of developing all of these themes while handling some of the best moves of modern cinema: voice-overs, freeze-framing, nonlinear plot and numerous sidestories.
But the best trait of City of God is that it doesn’t paint the world in black and white. Every character in the movie has something for which you will favour them and something for which you will dislike them. City of God doesn’t attempt to make heroes or victims out of the characters, it just shows you the lives of people as they are. That is what makes it feel so real, earning its frequent consideration among the best films of all time.
About every six months, a foreign-language film pops along that proves to the philistine masses that Hollywood is the centre of the creative universe. We’ve had Amelie from France, and we’ve had Y Tu Mama Tambien from Mexico and now we’ve got the mighty Brazilian City of God, a film of astounding technical flair and emotional depth.
The titular city is a shantytown outside Rio, where the destitute and the criminally inclined are removed from the eye of the tourists. Of course, the place becomes a hive of scum and villainy, and we are invited to observe the rise and fall of a number of individuals who live within the frantic framework of the City of God.
Our narrator is Rocket, a young boy who grows watching the violence and crime that permeates the environs. There’s the story of L’il Zé, the child with the plans and the bloodlust who grows up to run the city. There’s the story of Knockout Ned, a man of honour and principle who gets dragged into the sorry spiral of violence that the City offers its residents. And of course there’s the story of Rocket, a story of the hope of transcending one’s boundaries and living a good life. And around these people, a whole world of other stories occurs – the legion of lives that make up the single story of the City of God. Multiple demons in one, decaying body.
Although this is a film that can without doubt stand up on its own, if you were looking for comparisons then it mixes the precision pacing and gangster mentality of Goodfellas with the blistering immediacy of Do The Right Thing and the indie cool and structural imagination of Pulp Fiction. None of these comparisons, however, do justice to what is one of the most powerful and impressive films to be released in the UK for some time. It gives us an insight into a world that we never knew existed, and does so with a passionate, kinetic verve that makes it both deeply enjoyable and deeply disturbing. City of God is an absolute must see for anyone who claims that they love the cinema, and a masterpiece in the gangster film genre.
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Screenings of this film:
|2003/2004 Autumn Term – (35mm)|
|2009/2010 Spring Term – (35mm)|
|2015/2016 Autumn Term – (35mm)|
|2018/2019 Autumn Term – (35mm)|
|2022/2023 Autumn Term – (35mm)|