City of God: Not for the Faint of Heart

City of God has one of the most intriguing openings I’ve seen in years. The setting is the early 1980s in the ghettos, or favelas, of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Some chickens are being prepared for dinner. They are killed, boiled and stripped of their feathers. One grows aware of his impending fate and escapes. The chicken is chased through the streets by an angry, and obviously hungry, gun-toting mob.

The chicken ends up on a street where Rocket, one of our narrators, is. The mob leader yells at Rocket to grab the chicken. As Rocket approaches the chicken, the police pull up at the other end of the street, brandishing their weapons as they jump out of their cars. The mob takes aim at the police with Rocket stuck in the middle.

However, the viewers have unknowingly entered the story near its conclusion. To rectify the situation, Rocket decides the story would be better told starting at an earlier point in time. The camera swirls around Rocket, creating a time vortex that stops in the late ’60s when he is 11 years old, playing soccer with his friends. This is where the story begins for him as he watches his brother’s gang rob a propane truck.

What Rocket doesn’t realize is that it’s not his story that’s being told, but the story of everyone who lives in the favelas. All the stories intersect and overlap at different points in time, weaving together a giant tapestry that is the vicious circle of life in Cidade de Dues, City of God.

The film is broken down into three sections: the late ’60s, the ’70s, and the ’80s. Meirelles made the artistic choice to have each section shot, lit and edited in different styles to convey the moods of the times, and it payoffs. The film accomplishes his objectives so well that it received Academy Award nominations for directing, cinematography, editing and adapted screenplay, which is unusual for a foreign language film.

In the ’60s, there’s a youthful innocence as some boys get involved in crime. They start with non-violent escapades, such as halting a truck, allowing everyone to steal propane tanks. There’s a romantic, Robin Hood aspect to the criminal exploits. The photography is simple in the lens choices and framing compositions and the editing is straightforward.

In the ’70s, everyone is older and they get involved with sex and drugs. It’s fun at the beginning as they enjoy a puff of marijuana on the beach, but then some get involved in the drug business. The violence and action increase as Lil ZÃ?© and Benny take over the drug trade. The chaos that drugs bring to the favelas impacts the visual style. There is a wider selection of colors used, and the camera and editing don’t have the restraints from the first section.

By the ’80s, cocaine is where the big money is and an all-out gang war breaks out with very few neutral by-standers. The gangs arm anyone, no matter how old, who will take their side and can hold a gun. This section has a cold look from monochromatic colors, which are very bleak and don’t have much range. The anarchy of the gang war affects the visuals. We now see jump cuts, camera whips and unclear images.

The two main characters who are our guides throughout the film are Rocket, the narrator who tries to stay on the straight and narrow, and Li’l Dice who grows up to be Li’l ZÃ?©, a notorious drug dealer and killer. It’s hard to care for any of the characters involved because they are so rough and hard, but as the film progresses you have an understanding, almost a sympathy, for their plight because there was no other way for them to survive. Even good people are dragged into the fray. When Knockout Ned’s girlfriend is raped and Li’l ZÃ?©’s gang shoots his brother, he almost has no choice but to team up with Carrot, another gangster, to avenge his family and stay safe.

The biggest shock and the most powerful sequence of City of God took place when the credits rolled. A name and two images appeared on the screen. I didn’t pay much attention to it as I gathered my belongings in the dark. Then there was some grainy blue video and a scene from the film was being replayed. As I focused back on the screen, I realized that this wasn’t the same actor when the scene rolled by earlier in the film.

It turns out to be actual news footage. I am almost bowled over by the realization that not only did the gang war actually happen but good portions of the film were real. The novel it’s based on is actually a fictionalization of events, probably to protect the author. It was disheartening to have lost the illusion that these events were fiction, but inspiring to know that this story is being told in such a masterful way.

I enjoyed this film a lot, but I don’t recommend it for the faint of heart or those with a weak constitution. There’s a lot of crime and violence with no glamorization to desensitize you. While a good portion of the violence is off screen, it is still very visceral. For those of you up to the challenge, it is a wonderful film that will hopefully bring more insight than disillusionment to the problems of the world.

Directed by Fernando Meirelles
Written by Br�¡ulio Mantovani
Based on the novel Ciudad De Dios by Paulo Lins

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