“If you run, they catch you; if you don’t run, they catch you.”
Just miles from one of the most glamorous cities in the world, Rio de Janeiro, resides a favela (slum) known as Cidade de Deus or City of God. The poor were routinely pulled off the streets of Rio and forced to live in squalor in this favela. For decades this hell hole was run by murderously corrupt police and street gangs. Like a roach motel, once you checked into the City of God these dehumanizing elements, combined with brutal poverty, made sure you never checked out. This heartless system thrived with the blessings of the local government, because the poor are offensive to the affluent, and if you keep them out of sight they stay out of mind.
City of God is a true story of crime and redemption. An amazing piece of cinematic history that will keep you riveted from beginning to end. Filled with whip pans, split screens, and crazy angles, this movie is totally non-linear. Sequences happen with the stream-of-consciousness narrative of a stoner. At times it is visually stunning, lulling you with picturesque settings any still of which could framed as art. Then it will leave you numb and sickened exposing a permeating culture of animalistic and raw casual violence.
Based on the acclaimed autobiographical book by Paulo Lins, City of God follows Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues) a young denizen of the favela through three decades from the Sixties to the early Eighties as the tries to escape the dead end of the slums. All around him his friends and family fall further into the lure of crime as a lifestyle. None more deadly than Li’l Zé (Leandro Firmino da Hora), a bloodthirsty psychopath who plots from his earliest pre-teen years how to become the crime lord of the city. Li’l Zé is an unforgettable villain, a cross between a 1930s Warner Brothers gangster with the volatility of Pacino’s Scarface.
In many ways this is Li’l Zé’s story more than Rocket’s. Li’l Zé’s gentler partner Benny (Phellipe Haagensen) keeps him in check until he decides to leave with his girlfriend and move to a pot farm. Li’l Zé ends up starting a major gang war which bloodies the streets with senseless deaths. Rocket ends up finding work as a “war zone photographer” for the local paper, which may be his ticket out of the City of God if he doesn’t become a victim of Li’l Zé’s bloodbath first.
Directors Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund were allowed dangerous access to the slum and inspire amazing performances from their cast, all the more amazing considering most of the actors were pulled off of the street and had no previous experience. When we hear Rocket talking to Marina (Graziela Moretto) about how “he never took a hot bath”; that was not scripted. Actors Rodrigues and Moretto were talking off camera, during a pause in the shooting, when the Rodrigues (who lived in the City of God slums) was recorded telling her this simple but stunning fact about his life.
This is a movie that is mostly anecdotal, but moves at such a brisk pace it doesn’t feel like two-plus hours. Fractured flashbacks upon flashbacks layer each segment with uncanny depth. You’ll get swept up in the epic saga and moved by the true nature of the subject matter. The film ended up bringing attention to the desperate nature of Rio favelas and led to major social reform in Brazil.
City of God is presented in a MPEG-4/AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 1.78:1 running an average of 18Mbps. Although some early scenes are a bit soft, for the most part details are sharp. Blacks are stable and hold up in darkly lit scenes. Skin tones are natural and colors rich and vibrant. The film is bathed in a yellow filter for the early Sixties segment, and as the city grows in crime and complexity the palette is switched to heavy blue hues.
City of God‘s original Portuguese language track is presented with a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. Surround is deeply immersive with amazing sound cues which push the boundaries of the back speakers. The LFE is quite explosive from the gunfire to the lively music soundtrack. Dialog is cleanly captured and nicely balanced with the SFX and music.
- News from a Personal War (56:42; SD) Although I was hoping for a special feature comparing the real events to the movie, what we get is a compelling documentary exploring the social ravages the drug trade has brought upon the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. There are interviews with real cops, real drug dealers, and real residents of the slum. Each of them believe they are on the good guys’ side, but are obviously in denial of the fact they are each contributing to the cycle of crime and poverty that enslaves the slums. Fascinating, but somewhat depressing.
There is a stunning realism to the film giving it a documentary honesty with the flashiness of Goodfellas. City of God was nominated for Oscars for Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, and Best Writing. It earned each nomination, but was shut out by The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. This movie will stick with you long after you watch it. If you like true crime dramas, you will love City of God.
“You need more than guts to be a good gangster. You need ideas.”