The first thing that strikes you when you watch City of God is the sheer energy of the film. It starts with a bunch of children frantically chasing a chicken which they plan to eat, but the situation suddenly turns into an armed stand-off with the local police. Trapped in the middle of all this is wannabe photo-journalist Rocket, who has a habit of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The movie then rewinds to show the background of these events.
City of God is based on real life stories from Brazil during the 1960s and 70s. The military dictatorship that ruled the country at the time was attempting to transform Rio De Janeiro into a tourist paradise, so shipped as many of the poor citizens as they could to live on the outskirts of the city in a newly created community, the ironically named City of God. As you’d expect under these circumstances crime quickly began to thrive until it escalated into full-out gang warfare. This is essentially a story where ‘politics as normal’ stops working and society descends into an almost Hobbesian state of nature. The strong dominate the weak and new social structures emerge to accommodate this.
The film is told from Rocket’s point of view and takes the form of a series of interlocking anecdotes as he details the lives of his friends growing up in the slums and the various main players in the criminal underworld. Chief amongst these is Li’l Ze who rises from young hoodlum and hold-up artist to psychopathic drug lord, murdering all of his rivals and anyone who looks at him the wrong way. The politicians don’t seem to care while the police are largely corrupt creating an inevitable cycle of violence.
I reviewed La Haine a few weeks ago and despite being set several thousand miles apart these films have a lot in common. Both show the results when social deprivation is allowed to run riot. Young people with no access to education or economic opportunities are highly likely to turn to crime to make ends meet. Even Rocket flirts with life as a gangster before he quickly realises that he’s not any good at it and returns to his first love, photography. Both films are also a strange mixture of extreme violence and black humour and City of God flicks between them seemingly at random.
The movie has a huge cast made up of mostly non-professional actors. Despite the large number of characters that appear on screen they are all utterly distinctive and feel like real people, all with their own stories and backgrounds. The slum is almost a character in itself with its winding streets, rooftops, homes and hideouts. This, combined with the fast-moving cinematography and soundtrack of 70s soul and funk, creates a film universe that you can totally immerse yourself in. City of God lasts about two hours but I’d have been quite happy if it had gone on much longer. Luckily they made a TV series after this called City of Men which I’ll be reviewing at the weekend.
Here is the amazingly cheesy American trailer for City of God (the film is much better than the trailer makes it look):