City of God made the very top of Roger Ebert’s top ten list from last year. He’s not wrong, but beware: City of God is not for the faint of heart. It is horribly violent and, yes, even in this day and age, shocking. Children as young as five or six are shown on screen murdering adults, and vice versa.
City of God is told in the hip style of Trainspotting and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Fernando Meirelles isn’t afraid to use freeze frame, or speed up time, or use caffeinated editing to tell his story. Our narrator uses the tricks of Pulp Fiction to tell his story in flashback, in flash-forward, and from many different angles. The style and techniques are catchy and attention-grabbing.
There is also substance under the style. Like in the better works of Martin Scorsese, any stylistic trick first and foremost serves the story, which, like the better works of Scorsese, is one about gangsters. It follows a fascinating arc from mere poverty and thuggery to desperate, all-out war on anything that breathes.
Life of Crime
City of God is based on a true story. It’s told from the point of view of Rocket (Alexandre Rodriguez), who narrates from the present — there is some comfort in knowing that someone managed to survive long enough to tell the tale, because his story tells of violence and death in the City of God, the poorest slum of Rio de Janeiro.
Rocket grew up around hoods. His brother was part of “The Tender Trio,” a gang that robbed the occasional gas truck or motel. After a deadly motel heist, the cops pay a visit to the City of God to find the culprits. The pressure is too much, and the three go their separate ways. Meirelles shows us the cheapness of life when the cops walk right past one of the trio and gun down an innocent bystander. When they realize their mistake, they plant a gun on the corpse and fire it, the bullet almost hitting the perp who had walked past the cops.
The Tender Trio look like choirboys compared to Li’l Dice, a sociopathic seven-year-old who enjoys murder and desires power and respect. Li’l Dice grows up to become Li’l Zé (Leandro Firmino da Hora), the most ruthless, most powerful drug dealer (because that’s where the money is) in City of God.
Rocket fears Li’l Zé while spending most of his time hitting on Angelica (Alice Braga), smoking weed, and wondering how to become a professional photographer.
Don’t Look Away
The style and the story both make City of God far above average. What makes it great is that it treats its subject seriously and honestly. It looks closely at the details of crime and poverty without turning away in revulsion or dismissing the hoods as evil non-human beings. Because the film keeps its eyes open, you can bring anything you like to the film and get something in return.
For example, as horrible as Li’l Zé is, he achieves a sort of peace through strength. Is that better for the slums than anarchy? Is a bloodthirsty dictator better than feuding lords? What about guns? Would the City of God be a better place if nobody had access to guns? What about the guns that slipped through the cracks? Is arming the populace a solution, or does it start a downward spiral?
In a way, City of God is like Lord of the Flies. It puts children in a setting without any parental authority and looks at what happens. Both stories ask what human nature is, deep down at its core. City’s answer may be even more insightful because it’s based on a true story.
City of God earns Movie Habit’s highest rating. Story, style, and substance combine in a powerful, unforgettable film.
But City of God is not recommended for all audiences. My parents should skip it. My nephews and nieces should skip it. My queasy neighbor should skip it. The MPAA doesn’t provide an adequate “adults only” rating for violence, which City of God demands, not for blood or gore, but for the shocking images of children murdering children in the slums of Brazil.