City of God is a 2002 Brazilian film that, as embarrassing as it is, I have just seen for the first time recently. City of God refers to an area within Rio de Janeiro, known for its poverty and violence. City of God received four Academy Award nominations in 2003, for Cinematography, Editing, Adapted Screenplay and Directing. Amazingly, it was not nominated for Best Foreign Language Film. It was directed by Fernando Mereilles, who became well known internationally in 2005 for his film The Constant Gardener, which is one of my absolute favourite films (narrowly missing out on my personal top ten list). The film inspired a 2002-2005 Brazilian television series called City of Men (created by Mereilles and his co-director Kátia Lund). The film premiered out of competition in 2002 at the Cannes Film Festival and received mass critical acclaim upon its release. Both Time and Emire magazines placed City of God amongst their lists of top all-time films. City of God excels due to its fast-paced action and vibrant cinematography, though the film is anchored by its talented and diverse cast.
Rocket (Buscapé in the original Portuguese) is the narrator and protagonist of City of God. The film opens with him as a young boy in the 1960s who has aspirations of leaving the slums and becoming a photographer. It is through his narration that we hear the stories of the other characters in the film, including his brother Goose, and his friends Shaggy and Clipper. These three boys form a group, The Tender Trio, who steal from local businesses. One night, while trying to hold up a motel, an eager young boy named L'il Zé, kills all the occupants at the motel. Shaggy is later shot by the police and Goose is killed by L'il Zé. During the next decade Rocket befriends the "Hippies" and continues to be enamored by photography, and a beautiful young woman. L'il Zé, along with his childhood friend Benny, build their own drug empire and eliminate nearly every form of competition. Benny later decides to leave this world and disappear with his girlfriend. At the farewell party a girl refuses to dance with L'il Zé and he humiliates a peaceful man named Knockout Ned. This action leads to Benny being gunned down by a man named Blackie (trying to kill L'il Zé) and L'il Zé retaliates by raping Ned's girlfriend and killing his brother and uncle. An arms war ensues between the two sides and Rocket and his camera find himself in the middle of the fight.
With a large cast and a timeline that spans more than two decades, City of God is a complex film that never lets its fast-paced action get out of control. I found that the narration expertly linked the stories together, going as far as to introduce Knockout Ned and his peaceful ways early in the film before showing how violent he will eventually become. The film is not as violent as one would expect from the prevalent themes, but there are definitely some harrowing moments that have stuck with me. It is often very hard to watch films like this because it seems so foreign to me and yet I believe that these kind of people exist in the world. While City of God is not, in my opinion, Fernando Mereilles best work, it is a vibrant and compelling film that showed the world that he is a gifted filmmaker.
My rating: 3 stars out of 4.