City of God (2002)

11:03 AM

"Get that chicken, bro!" Li'l Zé cackles as his gangsters set after their runaway dinner, a nervous chicken with an overwhelming will to live. Wielding guns at the confused soul furiously bobbing through the crowded streets of the Rio de Janeiro slums, the chase comes to a sudden halt when L'il Zé's gang comes face to face with the dreaded police. In the midst of this meeting is the relieved chicken and the panic-stricken Rocket, a young photographer, and our faithful narrator from now on. Confrontations like this pepper Rocket's life as violence breaks out between L'il Zé and rival gang leaders, Carrot and Knockout Ned.  Gang violence has transformed the streets into a city at war. Rival gangs compete for control of the city's cocaine-dusted empire of illegal drugs and money, enforcing their wills with bullets over brains. It is the time of the ganglords. Boys with big smiles, big guns and black hearts. It's the Sharks versus the Jets, Bernardo versus Riff. It's West Side Story with machine guns…and everybody's got an itchy trigger finger. This is the City of God. 

When we meet this cast of characters, it's the 1960s. Rocket guides us through the slums, as we make our way to the seventies, when the bulk of the action takes place. Although we're bombarded with some horrifying images, such as a young boy being forced to shoot a small child, the vibrant energy of the slums battling with the seedy realities of its most dangerous inhabitants is an exciting and rare world to see. Really, City of God is a ironic name for a place that appears to lack any kind of Godly nurturing. I'd sooner call it a purgatory. Hanging off the edges of the colourful cornucopia of Rio de Janeiro, the ramshackle slum of the City of God is a barbarous pit. There are those who try and claw their way out, and there are those who proudly sit on the throne. Why leave when you can be the king of hell? This is the mindset of Li'l Zé, a turd of a person who reigns supreme over his subjects of small children with guns and a collection of dealers. Benny, Li'l Zé's right-hand man and childhood  best friend, plays the angel to Li'l Zé's devil on the shoulder of their slum-city. Where Li'l Zé mindlessly kills, equipped with a deadly attitude of zero empathy or compassion, Benny tries to maintain order, earning the title of the "Coolest Gangster in the City of God". And he really is. We can't help but love Benny, a regular hippy amongst wolves, with his big frames, snappy clothes and a laid-back approach to life. It's no wonder then, when after associating Benny with Li'l Zé's crime unit since the very beginning, the coolest gangster in the City of God wants to retire to the country with Angelica, a beautiful flower child who also happens to be Rocket's ultimate crush.

One incredible aspect of this film is the wonderful performances. From the cruellest gangster to the mildest, to the smallest child, emotionally-charged performances are abound. However, as part of the comfortable North American-living demographic, I can't be sure that what I'm seeing in City of God is true to life. One reassuring tidbit I've come across in my research of the film though, is that almost the entire cast had had no acting experience prior to filming, with a few cast members hailing from the City of God itself. Along with other opinions on the film, is an overwhelming approval of this casting choice. It's an interesting obsession, this idea of authentic portrayal of people from other worlds, when we don't demand the same standards from our own films. Because what's more authentic than a poor Irish beat cop in The Untouchables (1987) being played by the always shophishticated, always Scottish Sean Connery? In any case, City of God does it right and does it well with its local casting. 

With crisp electric editing coupled with extended tracking shots, City of God has been likened to Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas (1990). Even the introductions of the various players  and how they fit into the machine of crime brings us rushing back to how we first met Henry Hill and his crowd of mobsters. But this isn't Goodfellas. This is City of God. We can Frankenstein this film to death, throwing in a some Tarantino brutality, a dash of DePalma, hell, we're cooking with Coppola here, but really we need to take a step back and treat this film with a little more respect. City of God is a truly unique film in its own right. Whether the filmmakers Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund took cues from the American greats is irrelevant, because their work exists not to be compared, but to be consumed. 

Interestingly, the circumstances by which 4-year olds found guns in their hands is barely touched upon. The economic and political state of Brazil is certainly corrupt, but the focus of City of God isn't to provide a history lesson or to drag out pity (not wholly intentionally at least). Isn't that kind of great though? The really good gangster films get right into the thick of the smooth-talking, slick world of debauchery without much suggestion as to how or why. Throwing morality out the window is fun, and City of God rocket-launches it, and then blasts it into oblivion. Of course, the detrimental effects of this hoodlum lifestyle isn't lost on the viewer, it's just not completely explicit. We all know that shooting down innocent people in the streets is not a nice thing to do, we don't need to be beaten over the head with why we shouldn't do it. This isn't an after-school special, this is gangster territory, and City of God is a fundamentally cool, straight-up awesome gangster flick.

My rating: 8.5 cats out of 10

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