City of God is a truly rousing piece of cinema. Based entirely in the criminal underworld of the favelas of Brazil, the film shows the struggle between the gangs, corrupt police, drug dealers and the innocent people trapped between them.
Paolo Lins wrote his novel by researching the gang wars of the Cidade de Deus (City of God), a downbeat housing project where all the poor and homeless were punted by the government. The novel was a sprawling 600 page epic that covered multiple characters and a decade worth of true stories. And so director Fernando Mierelles certainly had his worked cut out for him once he and screenwriter Braulio Mantovani decided to converge the tale to the big screen. The director auditioned over 2000 local youngsters to play a part in the film and through a series of workshops leading up to the filming of the production he has carved out some wonderful performances from the amateurs.
The film’s central character is Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues) and we see most of the action of the slums through his eyes. However he is not integral to the action and he is used as a lens for the viewer to see the activity within the slum. It’s quite a nice technique as Rocket himself avoids the life of crime and becomes a photographer for a local newspaper and focuses on the crimes he witnesses on a daily basis. The opening of the film follows a chicken attempting to escape from its fate as BBQ meat, it’s a flashy opening which draws parallels to the lead character we will follow throughout the film.
The writer creates a rich tapestry of characters and individual storylines around Rocket and uses a choppy narrative to constantly keep the film on its kinetically charged feet. This one throws you into the action straight away and never stops for air. Things begin in the ‘60s with Rocket telling us the tale of his big brother’s small time gang of three hoodlums who had a failed attempt at petty crime. It’s filmed in a rich, sunny and romantic haze and perfectly introduces us to some of the characters who become integral to the next part of the story.
By the ‘70s, Rocket is a teenager unlucky in love and attempting to keep his nose clean. However the gangster Lil Ze is becoming ever more notorious and his dislike of another local gangster, Carrot Top, sets things in motion. After the death of one of the most likeable guys in the favela and the rape of a girlfriend of another important character the war begins.
In the ‘80s it’s all out war and there are deaths everywhere, kids are joining up with the gangs at a very young age and the future of the characters we have got to know does not seem very promising.
It’s an epic tale crossing over the decades, it’s reminiscent of Scorsese’s Goodfellas but is infused with the manic energy and gritty feel of new Latin cinema (such as Amores Perros). The film has stood up well to the test of time. A must have for any film fan.