City of God – An Appreciation
There are few films that have an uncanny ability to stir the spirit and rejuvenate one’s passion for the cinema. In a time where the majority of films released are routine, uninspired, and cliché, being an admirer of them can often times feel like a burden. However, when a great film is made and seen, it not only pushes that feeling away, but gives the film-goer a renewed sense of vigor; reigniting the spark that lead to one’s excitement for the movies. City of God (Cidade de Deus) (2002), a Brazilian film directed by Fernando Meirelles, does just that.
It has such a frenetic pace, such a headstrong momentum, but told so well that once we start watching it, we cannot turn away until it is over. Meirelles tells this story of the slums of Rio de Janeiro with such inventiveness that we become engrossed not only by it, but by the energy and style of the film itself. In a bold opening scene, we see the young man who will become the main character of the film, Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues) trapped between two rival gangs, their guns pointed at each other with Rocket caught in the cross fire. All of a sudden, as the narrator, Rocket stops the story in mid-stream, the camera whirls around him, and we are transported back years to where the story of Rocket’s time in the slums first began. With this great opening, Meirelles lets us know that we are about to witness a film that has no limits, that holds to no cinematic boundaries.
The Rio depicted here is not the one shown in travel guides and brochures. The film presents the lowest classes of the city, forced together in rundown shacks and shantytowns, described as the “City of God.” We see the very birth of this enclosed area in the 60s, with the story of The Tender Trio and their hold up of a local motel. The movie seamlessly moves in to the 70s, and shows the growth of it, its population overload, the introduction of drugs, and the rise of violent gangs. It is an area that police authorities dare not go. The City of God is run by its own version of street justice, where drug dealers and criminals make their own laws, and kill anyone who disobeys them. At the same time though, the film also portrays this area brimming with life, energy and culture, where everyone knows everyone else, and the air is filled with the sounds of the funk and Latin music that dominated the era.
Rocket narrates like a journalist reporting on a hot story. Through his detached eyes, we learn about the rise of the drug and gang culture within the city. In a remarkable scene, we learn about a particular apartment, how it became one of the headquarters of the gangs from its early beginnings, told in an incredible montage sequence all shown from one angle. The sequence lasts only a few minutes, but by the end we learn the entire history of this small space, how it switched ownership, and the violence that inhabited it. In detail, Rocket describes the intricacies of the gang business; it’s standing within the community, the horror of seeing gang members getting younger and younger, and the increasing tension between rival gangs, erupting in an all-out war at the climax of the film. Much has been said of its parallels to another great movie, Goodfellas (1990), which also has a narrator describing the criminal world he lives in. It is a valid and justifiable comparison, and deserves the praise.
Despite the film depicting this dangerous and violent world, it also has some lighthearted and humorous scenes, many of these featuring Rocket himself. Although he lives within this area and knows many of the gangsters in it, Rocket never directly involves himself with these people. Whenever he turns a corner and sees a hotheaded gangster, he turns right back around and goes the other way. Needless to say, he does this a lot. All Rocket wishes to do throughout the film is have fun, hang out with his friends, and get laid. But for some unfortunate circumstance, his luck with girls almost always goes wrong. His first major crush, with a high school classmate, goes bad when she falls in love with one of the big-name gangsters. When he finally scores a phone number from an attractive girl at an ice cream shop, he makes the bad mistake of getting high on pot, and uses the paper she wrote the number on as the wrapper. Luck finally goes his way when he develops a passion for photography, and lands a job as a photojournalist for a local newspaper. Through his lens, Rocket has the ability to present the story of the gangland warfare in a way no other reporter can, deep behind enemy lines.
With all of its technical achievements, it’s quick pace, and the large amount of people that occupy the screen, we’re surprised by the number of memorable characters and how distinct they are from one another. Other than Rocket, we remember The Tender Trio, the first gangsters of the slums, with his brother as one of its members. We remember Carrot, how he slowly moved up the ranks, and how he became the leader of one of the rival gangs. We remember Benny, a gangster who does not fit the description: how he wears big-rimmed glasses, sports a colorful afro, and how people become attracted to him not because he’s a criminal but because of his charisma and his wish to be friendly with everyone. And we remember Knockout Ned, a man who wished to have never become involved in the gang war, but through the rape of his girlfriend and the murder of his brother, had no other option but to join in the fight, and ultimately become a criminal himself.