City of God
Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles created possibly the most compelling foreign crime drama to date with City of God. It is based on actual events of the life of Paulo Lins, the author of the novel the film is based from. The storyline is comprised of many subplots that follows a young boy’s journey into adulthood from a ghetto filled with crime. Complex character development is present amongst the many characters we are introduced to. The story is told and unfolds beautifully with each passing chapter.
The film takes place in the slums of Rio de Janerio where they do not have electricity or paved roads. City of God is a ghetto for the homeless and poor where crime and drugs frequent the streets. But miracles still happen in the City Of God.
The opening scene begins with members of a gang chasing an escaped chicken down the street. Chasing the same chicken is our narrator named Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues). The chicken stops as it is trapped in the middle between Rocket and the gang. But just like the chicken, Rocket finds himself in the middle between the gang and the police.
City of God is a film told through flashbacks so the beginning of the film is really the end. The camera pans around Rocket and we are taken to when he was just a little boy playing soccer with his friends. This begins the first chapter of the story where Rocket tells us about the Tender Trio.
The Tender Trio was a group of hoodlum thieves formed by Shaggy, Clipper and Goose that holds up local businesses. Goose is Rocket’s older brother and even though most of the younger boys idolized the trio, Rocket admitted he never had the courage to follow his brother’s footsteps.
A young boy named Lil Dice tags along with the Trio in a motel robbery but they tell the boy he is far too young to do anything but serve as a look out for the police. This ended up being their last heist even though they managed to escape with lots of money. Following the chase from the cops a couple of the members had a change of heart. Clipper went a religious route, Goose started a real job, Lil Dice disappeared, leaving Shaggy as the only one that still had interest in continuing on.
The film states, “Hoods never stop, they just take a break” which rings true when Lil Dice shows up later after hiding for a while and eventually gets what he wanted since a child, to become the boss of the City of God. In order to achieve the rise in power he must kill off his rivals, which is obviously not a problem for him.
Lil Dice changes his nickname to Lil Ze as his power ascends to one of the most feared and dangerous gangster in the City of God. His childhood sidekick, Benny, has never left his side. Even though the two were always close together their personalities could not be further apart. Lil Ze held no remorse from his trigger-happy finger where Benny was as kind as any hoodlum could possibly be.
In the 70’s Rocket finally got his first camera that he so desperately wanted all of his life. He fell in love with a girl who was currently dating someone else. He went as far as scoring drugs for her and one day Angelica broke up with her boyfriend. Rocket had a chance to make his move but ultimately she went for Benny.
Rocket went to work long hours in the supermarket to pay off a newer camera. He called it the sucker’s life. That did not last long though because his boss thought he was in a gang and fired him. He began to wonder if it did not pay to be honest. Like his brother before him, he began to flirt with crime but he was never successful at it. He was too nice to ever go through with it.
Rocket never wanted to be a hoodlum or a policeman when he grew up because he was afraid of getting shot. Goose always told him to study and the only reason he is a hoodlum is because he has no brains. Rocket wanted to be a photographer and would soon get his chance to become one. Although he did not escape the getting shot at part.
Rocket gets a job with a newspaper as a delivery man. He slowly begins to make friends in the photo department. Lil Ze asked Rocket to take a photo of him and his gang however the pictures get into the wrong hands at the newspaper and eventually ends up on the front page. He fears that the gang will want to kill him as the picture was meant only for the gang to have.
On one hand he is fears his life from the gang on the other hand he is happy that he is finally the photographer he has always wanted to be. The story comes full circle to the beginning of the film where Lil Ze’s gang and Rocket meet again after chasing a chicken. When the police show up it presents an opportunity of a life time to snap photos of the situation.
The cinematography was breathtaking. From the opening shot of chasing a chicken throughout the small city roads to the film turned to stills from a camera near the end. The way it used orange and brown filters during the 70’s era was brilliant and fitting. City of God received a well-deserved Best Cinematography Oscar nomination at the 2004 Academy Awards, although somehow Master and Commander took home the award. The film was also up for Best Director, Best Editing and Best Adapted Screenplay.
In what I thought originally might be a downfall of the film, the abundance of subplots and characters that enter the story as fast as they leave, ends up being the purpose and main theme of the film. For every person that dies, there is another to take their place. There will always be something to fight about and always someone to kill.
City of God is both a shocking and inspiring story about life in the crime filled slums of Rio de Janerio. It is often compared to some of the best mob films out there and it can easily hang with, if not surpass them. It is a powerful film that at times you may want to look away but it is so compelling your eyes cannot.