Let’s take a break from the Hellraiser series. No matter how much I might like some of those movies, most of them aren’t great. Barring the first, they aren’t really achievements in cinema. I’ve recently picked up a bunch of DVDs and Blu-Rays on clearance (rest in peace, HMV) and I really feel like I need to start working my way through them. So, I decided to start with one of the most highly praised films of all time.
City of God (Cidade de Deus in Brazilian Portugese) is a Brazilian (duh) crime drama set in the titular favela (rough slang for a lower class district or slum) of Rio de Janeiro that follows a large ensemble cast of characters across multiple decades of their lives. While they all grow up impoverished, their lives take different turns as they navigate the gang, drug, and violence filled City of God, a place where children are killed in the streets and you rarely make it past the age of 30 without being riddled full of bullet holes first.
While City of God follows the stories of over five main characters, the protagonist and antagonist that draw a through-line from one end of the story to the other are Rocket and Li’l Zé. Both starting the story as young kids who see the “glamorous” life of local low level street thugs, one develops a creative passion and becomes enamored with photography and journalism while the other indulges a thirst for power and blood that only violent crime can provide him.
I read not too long ago that City of God is comparable to Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, and I’ve also read that City of God has even more Goodfellas in it than Goodfellas does. Goodfellas aside, City of God definitely reminds me of a Scorsese crime flick. One of his more lighthearted (if you want to even call them that) ones, like Goodfellas, or The Wolf of Wall Street, or Goodfellas.
Maybe I’m just overdue on watching Goodfellas again, okay? Get off my case.
City of God has an energy to it, a sort of visceral and dynamic power to it that not many other movies have. The film is alive in a sense, constantly moving, shifting, evolving as it tells its many stories. It is called City of God, after all. Not The Adventures of Li’l Zé and Rocket. This movie, while spent telling the stories of many characters, is really about the favela they all reside in just as much. The ensemble cast is bulletproof, most of them actual kids from poor or impoverished neighborhoods in the area, providing a level of immersion that is almost a little too real at times. None of them are professional actors, but between their real life experiences fueling their performances and what I can only assume to be one of the greatest acting coaches/ directors of all time, we get a huge mosaic of characters introduced, developed, and heart-wrenchingly stripped from us all within two hours and ten minutes.
I couldn’t put my finger on it until I looked into it further, but one of the ways City of God manages to pull off a cast that has a protagonist, an antagonist but no main character, is that every character is developed equally, and has a well defined relationship to one or more of the other characters. Everybody is somebody else’s friend’s cousin’s father’s nephew’s brother, and providing all of the characters with relationships grounded in realism and with believable dynamics really helped to cement how City of God sets up a living, breathing world. This is not a story contained to the frame of the camera. The story continues off screen, before and after the film. The City of God doesn’t end once the cameras stop rolling, we just get the privilege of seeing a couple cross-sections of it.
Even the City of God itself evolves as the film goes on. Starting in the ’60s, we see the rows upon rows, blocks upon blocks, of housing where Rocket, Zé and their family and friends grow up. Homeless roam the streets as the government shoves anybody who ruins the picture perfect look of Rio de Janeiro into this district. As they grow older into the ’70s, we see how the city has developed, with larger apartment buildings and complexes to help accommodate the people who have been displaced there. Once Li’l Zé rises to power in the City of God’s underworld, we see the impact he has on the city, rather than being told. The streets are cleaner. Nobody is mugging anybody or holding up stores any more. Zé rules with an iron fist, and we’ve been shown before how ruthless and brutal he can be when he enforces his own rules.
There’s a Hell of a lot going on and a ton to unpack from City of God, and for a movie that is so ambitious with how many characters, stories, and time periods it wants to cover, it moves along at a totally watchable pace. Nothing falls down to a boring slog with exposition detailing how somebody knows somebody else or which gang is currently doing what. City of God treats its audience with respect, and barely offers up unnecessary things like direct exposition or even establishing shots. To City of God, those things are inefficiencies in storytelling. Why bother explaining what was, is, or is going to happen, when the actions and relationships between characters provide us with all the information on their desires, motivations, and mentalities, allowing us to infer the same things?
You might be thinking I’m crazy for saying the lack of establishing shots in City of God are a positive, how else would you be able to tell where things are in relation to one another or where a character currently is? Fret not, fellow movie-goer, because City of God has a sneaky way of getting around this. Instead of dedicating a whole shot to a location, director Fernando Meirelles and his crew place landmarks inside the frame that crop up again and again. They, umm, what’s the phrase… oh yeah, are good at cinematography and composing shots. Like film makers. You know. People who make films.
Take notes from City of God, everybody. This is what a good movie looks like.
Now, City of God isn’t all doom and gloom about drug dealers and murder. It does have a fair amount of levity in it. Rocket, being the young man that he is, is awkward and fumbling around trying to find his way. Between scoring a waitress’ number then using the napkin to roll a joint, to flirting with crime by attempting multiple hold ups that get called off just because how cool he thinks the person on the other side of the counter is, Rocket is a good guy trying to find his own path in a place that if you try to run it will get you and if you stay, will eat you.
The more lighthearted scenes are definitely a much needed break from some of the bleakness the film conjures up, but also provide a contrast that makes the heavier parts feel that much more powerful. Every bullet fired in City of God feels important. When somebody, anybody is killed, there’s a real weight and gravitas to it. When it’s a character we know, it’s even more painful to watch. And some scenes are painful to watch. Most of the violence depicted in City of God is free of actual on screen blood, but that doesn’t make it any easier on the audience. Children are blatantly killed on screen and in one instance a child is forced to choose between which of his two friends (one whom is barely older than a toddler) he is going to shoot in the head. While there is a lot of violence in City of God (and there is a lot) as well as explicit drug and gang culture shown, never is it sensationalized. There is no romanticism to any of it. It’s all brutal, gritty, and realistic. Nobody will ever watch City of God and think about how cool it is that Li’l Zé massacres an entire motel before the age of 10.
It took me a while to write up all this about City of God. Usually after I watch I movie I can slam out 1000 words on it in an hour, no problem. This film took me much longer because I feel like it deserves more respect, I needed to choose my words wisely. I had no idea what to expect going into this movie, and I made it through the other side completely in love with it. City of God is an absolute gem of a movie, and while it definitely owes a lot to some of the crime drama epics that came in the decades before it, it’s unlike anything else I’ve ever seen in the genre. The more I ruminate on City of God, the more I fall in love with it. I feel like this is a film that benefits from repeat viewings too, but even after my very first watch I wouldn’t hesitate to include City of God in my top ten favorite films of all time.