A chicken frantically runs through the slums of a crowded and busy neighborhood as a horde of gun-toting kids run after it trying to catch and cook the bird. Under the beats of the distinctive Brazilian tunes, we watch as the chicken tries to weave its way between the alleyways. It reaches a main road where a car nearly hits it but survives unscathed. It is at that moment when Rocket, played by Alexandre Rodrigues, the film’s main protagonist, utters these words: “A photo might have changed my life…but in the City of God, if you run you’re dead…if you stay, you’re dead again”. At first, this might seem to be a vague statement but it soon becomes clear what is meant by it.
Exploding unto the film scene in 2002, City of God, directed by Fernando Meirelles, is an epic story following a group of gangs in an extremely violent and chaotic neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro called Cidade de Deus, in other words, City of God. It is told across several decades with a distinctively kinetic and engrossing energy that is simply refreshing to the eyes and ears. Seen through the perspective and lens of Rocket, the neighborhood contains truly memorable characters such as Li’l Zé and Benny, played magnificently by Leandro Firmino and Phellipe Haagensen, respectively.
The main strength of this film is of course the story itself. There have been many gangster films throughout the decades but the truly great ones, the ones that become instant classics, are those with a strong, solid and gripping storyline. Thankfully, City of God provides all of that in spades. Indeed, the story delivers an immediately mesmerizing atmosphere that captures the viewer’s attention and does not let go until the very end. Rocket, hoping to be an aspiring photographer, manages to get into the lives of these gangs and captures memorable scenes and events that transform the entire neighborhood. The story flows smoothly and naturally without any meaningless interruptions and remains fresh and innovative through out. It gives a completely realistic portrayal of gangs leading hopeless lives consisting of theft, robbery, rape, violence and hate. An infinite circle of violence.
However, such a story would not be as powerful as it ends up being without the exceptional acting on display. The entire cast provides mesmerizing performances with some truly magnificent scenes and awe-inspiring moments. These actors successfully manage to get the viewer to be completely connected and invested in the lives of the characters they portray. Firmino, specifically, plays the role of Li’l Zé with such an unrelenting, ruthless and fearless display that he ends up creating a character who could easily stand next to the other great villains in cinema history. Even the kids are completely believable as they commit horrendous and shocking crimes. I would confidently say that after seeing what “The Runts” do, you will never look at children the same way again.
Without question, the film’s direction must also be given high praise. Meirelles displays in this picture complete confidence in his abilities and technique. Here, he has created an exuberant, rich and vibrant picture that is very rare. It is evident that he had a complete, coherent and clear vision of what he wanted this film to become and what the message that is to be delivered through it should be.
City of God is a film that is rightfully seen as one of the greatest motion pictures to have ever been made. It is also one of the best gangster films. I could spend hours upon hours lavishing praise over this beautiful picture and not get tired of doing so. The combination of powerful acting, groundbreaking storyline and dialogue, breathtaking cinematography, assured directing and memorable music, results in a film that will always continue to inspire and affect those lucky enough to watch it. To me, City of God will always be the most definitive film about gangster life in South America, particularly Brazil.
- Alexandre Rodrigues (as Rocket)
- Leandro FirminoZé (as Li’l Zé)
- Phellipe Haagensen (as Benny)
2 hours and 10 minutes
Crime / Drama