Despite its almost impossibly glowing reputation, I have to say I approached City of God (Cidade de Deus) with serious trepidation. I expected this Brazilian import to be anything but my cup of Lapsang Souchong — no matter how worthy the film might be. I don’t know if calling something as visceral, unpleasant and disturbing as City of God a pleasant surprise is exactly appropriate, but it will have to serve: I went in hoping at best to find something to admire; I came out not merely impressed, but certain that I had seen the work of a major new filmmaker.
Yes, the story, set in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, is a little bit like Scorsese’s Goodfellas (to which the film has been compared). Yes, it’s not completely unlike the same director’s Gangs of New York (as has also been noted). Yes, it has structural similarities to Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, and even more to Guy Ritchie’s Snatch (not to mention Luis Bunuel’s Phantom of Liberty). Yes, it has choreographed action akin to that of the films of John Woo. Stylistically, it’s even a bit like Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge! (however hard that may be to believe). And for true admirers of esoterica, City of God reaches a conclusion that seems to be a variant (probably unconsciously) on Barry Shear’s schlock-ploitation classic, Wild in the Streets.
In other words, this film is a bit like a lot of things — though finally, it’s not really like anything but itself. And City of God’s ultimate individuality is nothing short of breathtaking, both for its sheer audacity and shattering intensity.
The film opens with a marvelous burst of energy, focusing on what appears to be some kind of party in the slums of Rio, with the camera paying particular attention to a chicken that’s apparently on the menu — that is, until the bird gets away. This sets off a chase that leads to what will prove to be the beginning of the film’s denouement, an event staved off for two hours while the movie’s main character, Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), brings us up to speed and finally takes us back to this moment in time. It’s exciting filmmaking, beautifully executed, but it’s also a brilliantly economical way of telling a complex story in a series of vignettes spanning a number of years.
Part of the (near) genius of this approach lies in the fact that the film requires a thorough understanding of the titular “City of God” — which is only possible through the use of narration, provided by Rocket, as he describes the circumstances that lead up to the film’s opening. Much like the introduction of the Moulin Rouge in Moulin Rouge!, the film propels us from its opening into the past with a flourish of dynamic camera moves and editing, detailing the setting and the mindset.
The “City of God” is actually a government-created slum — a housing project done on the cheap with no purpose other than to segregate the poor of Rio from the wealthy (and, more importantly, from the tourists). The “city” is a series of crackerbox houses without electricity on unpaved streets, a deliberate ghetto breeding hopelessness and a sense that crime is the only way out. Crime, in fact, is so much a part of life here that the police are perfectly happy when the sociopathic Li’l Ze (Firmino da Hora) brutally murders all the drug dealers and takes over their operations, because his control of the “city” makes it otherwise relatively crime-free.
No synopsis of City of God’s story line will do the film justice; it’s too complex and too layered. By all rights, most of the characters should not be even slightly sympathetic, yet they are presented so non-judgmentally and with their circumstances so clearly delineated, that it becomes impossible not to at least understand why they are as they are. With the exception of Li’l Ze, the characters are all shown to be either pushed or backed into their tragic roles.
For that matter, Rocket — who finally breaks free of his environment through recording it on film and becoming a photographer — is a departure from the norm of the “city,” and works as a believable counterbalance to the violence and madness surrounding him. He is believable because his situation isn’t presented so much as a moral decision, but because he simply isn’t suited to the life he was born into. (How moral can it be for him to work his way out of the ghetto via a stolen camera and by cashing in on the bloodshed around him?) Rocket even tries to be a “gangster,” but in a surprisingly charming series of scenes, he keeps not robbing his victims when each turns out to be “too cool” or “too nice” to harm.
As grim and as shattering as City of God is, it’s ultimately not a complete downer, thanks largely to Rocket, who stands in sharp relief to the cold-blooded Li’l Ze. In fact, Rocket’s attempts at a life of crime are a marked counterpoint to Li’l Ze’s chilling first foray into real criminal activity.
Make no mistake, City of God is an uncommonly brutal, violent, disturbing movie that is very much not for everyone. But it’s just as uncommonly brilliant and exhilarating.