‘City of God’ reveals the dark, gritty reality of living in the ghetto in Rio de Janeiro

Alexandre Rodrigues in 'City of God'
Alexandre Rodrigues in ‘City of God’

City of God is a well constructed, sometimes difficult to watch portrayal of reason and rationale in urban life, showing the progressive degradation of situations and lives in a ghetto. The particular ghetto portrayed in the film is a small, overpopulated area outside Rio de Janeiro, nicknamed “City of God” by its inhabitants because of their hope for a new paradise which was being built as they arrived.

However, virtually every positive action in this film or any attempt to overcome the slums is engulfed by the destruction caused by this paradise lost. The film’s narrative follows the lives of two main and several minor characters through two decades of their lives in the ghetto and shows how one man’s life can have an impact on another.

City of God is the story of two young boys, Rocket and Li’l Zé, who grow up in the same ghetto but choose very different paths for themselves. Li’l Zé grows up committing murder and other violent acts as a way of setting himself apart from others and decides to take control of the local drug trade. Because of an early childhood experience, Rocket chooses to become a photographer, setting himself apart from others as the one who shoots film and eventually decides on a career in photojournalism. City of God portrays Rocket and Li’l Zé’s interactions between each other and the “City of God”. It portrays what life is like for one man who wants to be someone who is known and another man who is more interested in being the man in the background, recording all that happens.

The film is structured through a series of parallels drawn between characters, particularly the two main ones. These parallels start at the beginning of the movie, which picks up near the end of the story when one of the main characters, Rocket, chases a chicken in a sequence that is similiar to another scene of him being chased by a gang. Li’l Zé’s gang serves as a focus, a micro-perspective of the ghetto where all of these characters live.

City of God is a multi-layered, multi-perspective film in which equivalents are drawn between shooting a gun and shooting film, taking a man’s life and taking his picture. These same parallels and comparisons fill the movie when virtually all of the same events are echoed throughout the movie but reinterpreted with new characters, new lives, and the ever increasing torment in seeing yet another life destroyed by the circumstances of the ghetto.

Every character’s destruction is compounded by the movie having taken time to properly establish enough backstory and interaction for the characters to become real. Each character is also given more essence and tangibility by amazing acting, particularly on the part of several young children. Smart framing and camera work also give the characters and audience a close and involved level of interaction. This along with a tempo created by score and pace makes each moment important in some way or another.

Although the film has great structure and rhythm, it is quite long, coming in at 130 minutes. Combined with subtitles and sometimes very graphic violence, City of God can feel lengthy at times. As a result, there are times where you may lose track of some of the stories and confuse some of the characters, but the impact of the film is easily felt on just one viewing.

After a few viewings, I can honestly say that this is a masterpiece, especially for its directors, Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, who have little previous credit to their names. Ultimately, the length is both its strength and its weakness. Because of the film’s complexity, the long running time allows the story and characters to build beneath you, eventually giving you a sense of having really experienced the ghetto life.

The DVD has only one extra, a documentary about the real life “City of God”, filmed prior to the feature. At first it seems to have no real connection to the feature, but in the end, the documentary serves two purposes: It gives some extra story and conceptualization concerning the “City of God”; and at the same time reminds the viewer that even though City of God is an amazing film, it is just a film. A well lit, well structured, well framed vision of a very tragic and real existence.

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