Movies We Like
City Of God
Carrying the torch for Brazilian cinema and then running ten miles with it, lugging it into the new century, Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund’s epic masterpiece, City Of God, still stands as one of the best films of the 21st century so far. Picking up the torch from Hector Babenco’s 1981 film, Pixote, another film about children in Brazil’s crime-ridden ghettos, City Of God deserves ranking with the best of epic crime cinema. A shallow, but apt comparison may be a kiddie Godfellas with the razzmatazz style of Boogie Nights.
Based on a novel by Paulo Lins, spanning from the '60s through the early '80s, City Of God tells the story of the drug wars in the urban sprawl around Rio de Janeiro. Apparently based on the real life story of a Brazilian photographer named Wilson Rodriguez - here renamed Rocket (and acted well by Alexandre Rodrigues) - the story moves back and forth in time as we follow Rocket and the different young people he gets involved with over the years. Growing up in a more rural slum, Rocket’s brother Goose and his little crime posse get involved with a botched motel robbery that turns into a murder massacre when an 11-year old psycho named Li’l Dice gets his hand on a gun. Trying to escape with his girlfriend, Goose’s partner Shaggy is killed by the "shoot first" cops, while Goose is killed by Li’l Dice.
Later Rocket ends up in a city housing project known as The City Of God, a tornado of poor youth violence and crime. Now hanging with a group of mellow, hippy stoners, Rocket is befriended by a good natured and charismatic drug dealer named Benny (Phellipe Haagensen), which opens up a whole new world to him. Benny shares his crime empire with his partner, a now grown-up Li’l Dice (going by the revamped moniker Li'l Ze). Benny is in the business for his love of smoking weed, while Li’l Ze craves the power. Li’l Ze (Leandro Firmino) runs the town with an iron fist; his only remaining competition is Carrot, who is also friends with Benny (unlike Li’l Ze, Benny has no enemies). Li’l Ze is on a par with the great scary criminals in recent crime film history (think Ben Kingsley in Scary Beast or Joe Pesci in Goodfellas). He wears his social insecurities on his sleeve, which makes him more deadly. Jealous of the dancing skills of a good guy named Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge), Li’l Ze goes on a shooting spree. His rape of Knockout Ned’s girlfriend creates a new enemy and a new gang war, which leads to a new round of extreme violence in their neighborhood.
The film moves full-circle as Rocket becomes a photographer, shooting pictures of the crime on the streets (like a war-zone cameraman). Though peripherally involved with these criminals, Rocket seems to be the only person in the story who is not involved in some sort of illegal trade. Ironically, his witnessing of it is what gives him his reputation as a reliable street photographer. The circle of life continues. As each crime lord or lieutenant is killed off a new, younger one is ready to move into his spot. It’s a spiraling world with no end in sight.
Director Meirelles came out of the world of television commercials, while Lund had made a documentary about street kids in Rio called Golden Gate. Strangely, many sources ignore Lund’s co-direction, and when the film got Meirelles an Oscar nomination Lund was not credited as co-director. Working with cinematographer Cesar Charlone and editor Daniel Rezende (The Motorcycle Diaries), the team created a truly original vision. Employing mostly non-actors (many of the kids grew up on the streets they shot in), in an ultra realistic style but with the motion of a rampaging train, it’s like Italian Realism on MTV speed. Perhaps it’s that combination of commercial director and documentarian slammed together and out pops City Of God which looked and felt not quite like anything before it.
In 2002, a spin-off Brazilian television series was made called City Of Men that followed new characters and in 2007, a little seen, sorta-sequel film was made with a new director and cast also called City Of Men. Though neither the TV show nor the sequel are essential viewing, along with the original film, they helped to spawn a new vibrant film industry in Brazil with homegrown films like Lower City and Elite Squad finding an international audience. Maybe the most important follow up to City Of God is the harrowing, shocking documentary Bus 174, strung together by news reports of a killing and hostage situation on a Rio de Janeiro public bus. Again it helped shine a light on the poverty and desperation, as well as the brutal police activity that spawns so much urban mayhem there. Unfortunately neither City Of God nor Bus 174 leave you with much optimism about the future for young people in the poor slums of the world. All we can hope is that for every kid like Li'l Ze, there’s a kid like Rocket watching in the shadows planning his escape.
City Of God was nominated for four Oscars: Best Director (Fernando Meirelles), Best Cinematography, Best Editing, and Best Adapted Screenplay.