May 9, 2003 -- “City of God” is a flashy, brutal portrayal of life in a slum (the word for a slum in Rio is favela) next to Rio de Janeiro. These deadly streets make the mean streets of New York's Hell's Kitchen look like Disneyland. Street gangs rule the City of God (Cidade de Deus) with bloody force. There are few jobs, no paved streets or other modern urban infrastructure (Cidade de Deus was originally a housing project in the 1960s, but has since decayed into a lawless favela). The only thriving business in this favela is the illegal drug trade. Young men seldom survive past the age of 20.
The main character is named Rocket (played by Alexandre Rodrigues). He grows up in the City of God with the rest of the street gangs, but eventually becomes interested in photography. He longs to get out of the slums and get a real job. Lil Dice (Leandro Firmino da Hora), on the other hand, longs to rule the slums. He dreams of being the most dangerous criminal in the City of God. Bene (Philippe Haagensen) is Lil Dice's best friend, and the coolest drug lord in the City of God. Everyone likes and respects him, while everyone fears Lil Dice because of his rage and violence. Bene becomes rich from the sale of drugs, but never becomes corrupted by the money or power. The fourth main character is Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge). Ned becomes a sworn enemy of Lil Dice after a murder. He and Lil Dice eventually head up two opposing gangs that turn the City of God into a war zone.
The film uses a series of interlocking flashbacks to tell the story of the three main characters over a long period of time, following them from childhood to adulthood. A fourth main character, Knockout Ned, is established later in the movie. The flow of the film is constantly interrupted by the numerous flashbacks and other cinematic asides, but the film has spectacular photography and great editing to help distract the audience from noticing these narrative bumps. Cinematographer César Charlone uses a lot of cinematic tricks, including the pivot shot popularized in “The Matrix.” Most pivot shots (where the camera pivots around the subject, remaining locked on target, usually with the subject frozen in time while the camera moves) are horizontal, but Charlone also uses an unusual vertical pivot shot to good effect in the film. The shot involves a man laying on the ground with another man's foot on top of his head, but it is filmed in such a way that it looks, at first, as if the man is standing up. By simultaneously pivoting the shot and pulling back, the true predicament of the man on the ground is revealed. It is a very impressive camera shot. Speeded up action is another camera trick used, along with low angle tracking shots, particularly those involving a chicken being chased through the streets. The camera is right down there at the level of the chicken. The editing of the film, by Daniel Rezende, is also very slickly done.
Directors Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund do a good job of keeping this disjointed story from flying apart at any of its many seams. It is a visually interesting movie with some good performances and a fairly compelling story based on the Paulo Lins novel of the same name. The novel, in turn, is based on a true story. Many of the children in the film are from the favelas of Rio, and most had no acting experience prior to this film. The spoken language in the film is Portugese. The use of local kids, and the unusual camera work in the film, give it a compelling, documentary feel. This film rates a B.
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