Directors: Fernando Meirelles & Kátia Lund
City of God is almost certainly the best known Brazilian film, and definitely the one held in the highest regard by international audiences. After its release in 2002 it was nominated for four Academy Awards, and nearly fifteen years later it occupies a very respectable spot at #21 on IMDb’s Top 250 films of all time, with over half a million user-submitted ratings.
The film’s title is taken from the name of the impoverished Rio de Janeiro favela in which it is set, Cidade de Deus. Many of the characters are played by actual locals rather than professional actors. This is something I’ve noticed in several films on this blog already – notably with the Bhutanese Travellers And Magicians. The result is been the same in both films – the cast manages to overcome a lack of experience and delivers a powerful performance that adds an extra level of authenticity and realism to the story.
City of God follows the growth of organised crime in the favela over several decades. Our narrator Rocket is the younger brother of a low-level thief, caught up in a life of crime but dreaming of someday making it out. Like the protagonists of seemingly every modern coming-of-age drama, from Boyhood to Diary of a Teenage Girl, Rocket develops a passion for photography. He hopes to turn it into a legitimate career, but the hood life proves hard to escape.
Parallel to Rocket’s story, we also see that of Lil Zé, a kid who grows up to become a respected gang leader by raping and murdering his way through the favela, showing a disturbing level of enjoyment as he does so. An ensemble of supporting characters come and go over the course of the film too – life expectancy is not high in Cidade de Deus, and death arrives suddenly and violently for many.
City of God pulses with furious energy. It’s relentless, intense, and doesn’t slow down for a moment. The violence is disturbing, especially since so many scenes involve children as either the victim, the perpetrator, or both. It’s a film that left me feeling shaken and emotionally drained, but one that I imagine will stick with me for a long time.