Rating: B/ This ain’t the vision of Rio di Janeiro you see on travel brochures! Told in a nonlinear style somewhat akin to Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, City of God tells the disturbing story of a Brazilian gangster named Lil’ Ze (Leandro Firmino) living in the crime-ridden ‘city of God’ who really wants to make a name for himself, and climbs up to the top of the food chain amid the senseless slaughter of hundreds of unfortunates.
Watching the mayhem unfold is the film’s unsentimental narrator Rocket (Alexander Rodrigues,) an aspiring photographer who doesn’t have the stomach for gang violence and wants out of the hood. Lil’ Ze’s all-out drug war with rival gangster, Carrot (Matheus Nachtergaele), results in utter devastation for everyone involved, and Rocket serves as a catalyst and observer to the insane bloodshed.
City of God has a lot of characters and parallel plot threads, so like a book, you have to pay close attention to keep everyone and their individual dramas straight. I actually bailed out on this one the first time I watched it because it got too confusing for me, but it’s definitely worth giving a second look. The film is also a gritty commentary on the never ending cycle of senseless violence in places where gangs rule the streets. The gangsters in this film are merciless, the cops are corrupt, and even the kids are encouraged by drug lords to pick up guns and lay their lives in support of a conflict they can’t even understand, much less fight.
So it’s not a film for the faint of heart, but it’s very well put together, and even more impressive is that many of the actors are not even professional. They used actual street kids in the cast, and the children pull off eerily plausible performances, which is a marvel considering some Hollywood actors are barely convincing in their roles. The acting in this one is altogether very natural, from the performances of the kids they pretty much just picked up off the street to those of the more seasoned adult actors. City of God pulls off the trick of making the cinematography and editing look slick without underplaying the effect of violence on the characters.
Now I can’t say City of God didn’t leave me a little cold at the end, what with me not being able to relate to Rocket’s trials in the least as a comfortably middle-class white kid, but even those who understand nothing about living in a war zone or a neighborhood taken over by gangs and drugs should be able to recognize the artistry behind it. I actually liked the filmmaker’s later drama, The Constant Gardener, better, (mostly because it has my favorite actor in it, Ralph Fiennes,) but City of God is an intense look into a world most middle-class Americans can’t imagine, nor would they want to.
The film reminds us how lucky we are to live in the U.S.A.. Even though there are obviously some super-rough Urban areas in America where people deal with these kinds of problems all the time, life is exponentially better for most of us than the characters in this movie.