Oscar Nominations for: Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay), Best Director
City of God is one of the most remarkable films I’ve ever seen. From the frenetic, slightly perplexing start to the very last frame the movie is at times joyous, at times horrifying, but always a wonder. I’m convinced that if this film were in English it would have been a Best Picture nominee and there would be a serious discussion about what the best film was of last year.
As it is the movie managed to nab two nominations in the big categories, and that’s saying something. The City of God is a slum, the worst of the worst, in Rio. The government built it to put the poor in, to keep them separate from the rest of the cosmopolitan city. Then they didn’t put in electricity or running water, and also neglected to put in a regular police force. The result was predictable; a mélange of people, bursting at the seems; each with the common denominator of no hope. Crime—at first robbery, and then moving into drugs—became virtually the only trade, as life was sold cheaper than you can imagine. A few survived, and this story is based on their lives.
It all sounds depressing, and there is that element. To see the age at which people become thugs and killers is heartbreaking. But whereas Monster (which I reviewed last week) showed us the defeat of the human spirit, City of God shows us that somehow, in the midst of tumultuous chaos, life finds a way.
The movie is narrated by “Rocket,” who is sort of a side character until the very end, about the life of gangs in the City of God. In this way the film sort of resembles Goodfellas, although I dare say this is the movie Scorsese wishes he would have made. Anyway, we get a sideways view of the gang life in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Besides Rocket there is Lil’ Dice, Benny, Carrot, Knock-out Ned, and a host of other characters you’ll come to love and hate (sometimes both at the same time), but never be able to take your eyes off of.
The movie was filmed in the actual slum in Rio, and has an authenticity that no studio could ever hope to replicate. Even “cleaned up” for the film it is teeming with life, at times seeming a living breathing monster. The cast, as I understand it, is partly made up of actors and the rest are people who actually live there. Whatever the breakdown, the cast is uniformly great and rivals any cast ever assembled.
Let’s talk about style: Director Fernando Meirelles has made a film that rivals—and at times surpasses—anything Tarrantino has ever accomplished (and if you know me, that’s saying something). Not a moment is ever wasted. There is not one scene that ever feels like it’s there to be used later (you know, like giving Ellie a toy compass in Contact). At times the film stops in the middle of something to back up and come at it from a different direction. There is one remarkable section which tells the story of a room! It was a pure delight to see the inventiveness and skill that the plot was presented in. I predict good things for both director and script-writers.
Along-side all that, though, were the two facets that most intrigued me. One was the mesmerizing horror of how difficult life was. Seeing 10 year olds rob and kill is something I never asked for, but now can’t stop thinking about. (If you’re curious as to why, it’s because gangsters don’t live too long in the City of God, so you have to start young). The misery that these people live under is never presented in a cloying or sentimental way, and never became a distraction. This leads me to the second and most satisfying part of the movie. What could have been 2 hours and fifteen minutes of guilt trip for how comparatively “rich” I am instead became a triumph of the human spirit. I don’t mean that in a Remember the Titans sort of way. Even the best of these people were criminals by some standard. But there was still this…I don’t know how to put it, a resilience and charm to many of these people. I was rooting for some of them!
City of God is unfortunately, not for everyone. The subtitles will turn off some, just as the violence will turn of others. But if you love movies, you need to see this. If you enjoy arguing whether Godfather I or II is best (and for the record, I think City of God is better than II and rivals I), than you need to see this. If you take yourself seriously as a movie person, you need to see this film.
What more can I say?
Suspension of Disbelief Index: 0. To prove it, in the credits they show some archival footage that they took from the real characters this is based on. Word for word.
Genre Grade: Gangster film or Poverty film. Either way, A+.
Pantheon Percentile: 99. One of the best films I’ve ever seen.