“It was like a message from God: ‘Honesty doesn’t pay, sucker.’ “
City of God has been sitting on my Netflix queue for ages, and I finally got around to watching it. I didn’t expect too much, but I was humbled and astounded by the movie. One of my reasons for taking on the 1001 List is to find some new favorites, movies that inspire me and get me excited about the medium. I suppose The 400 Blows had a really strong effect on me, but City of God impressed me in a way nothing else on the list has achieved so far. It’s a movie I’ll return to time and time again. It’s visually stunning, thematically brilliant, and brutally honest. I’m really excited to talk about this one, so I’ll dive right in.
The immediate comparison that came to mind with this movie was Scorsese’s Goodfellas, and I found after some reading that a lot of other critics have made the same comparison. There’s the rise to the top in a life of crime, the narration guiding us through the story, the hotheaded downfall of major players, the humor, the wit, the total absorption of the viewer into this shady underworld – a lot of identical elements. The biggest difference for me was that City of God seems far more brutal. It depicts the true story of a drug lord’s rise to power in a Brazilian slum. While Scorsese will often play around with the amoral nature of his criminals and glorify them as charming antiheroes, director Fernando Meirelles shows us a darker, more cutthroat world of savagery. Drug lord Little Zé (played by Leandro Firmino da Hora) is clearly an antagonist with no gray area, and his rise to power is vicious, not charming. City of God tells a similar tale as Goodfellas, but through a much darker lens.
I was so impressed by Meirelles’ ability to tell this story, and I’ve already added some of his other works to my watchlist. The opening shot of the gang members preparing to cut up the chicken and prepare a meal is so poetic and violent at the same time, setting the tone for the film to come. The camera follows the chicken running down the street where we meet our protagonist Rocket, caught in the literal center of gang warfare. I knew I loved the movie immediately. It’s visually entertaining with such genuine, fascinating characters. Meirelles tells a pretty complex story with a lot of important characters and subplots, but it all feels so natural and engaging. I never found myself bored with this movie, and every scene felt so pivotal and high stakes. I think part of this success comes from the strong visual direction brought by Meirelles, and the other part is the thrilling screenplay by Braulio Mantovani. There’s this gritty tone to all of it, and we’re always left on the edge of our seats as an audience.
Maybe the most astounding thing about this movie is the cast. Meirelles chose to select his actors almost entirely from real Brazilian slums, with some coming from the actual City of God slum itself. There’s very little experience to the cast, but everyone pulls out phenomenal work. Alexandre Rodrigues leads the cast as Rocket, the film’s narrator who is trying to stay out of the gang violence and just wants to become a photographer (and lose his virginity). There’s such humanity to Rodrigues’ portrayal, and he serves as a wonderfully sympathetic moral compass. When he finally finds success at the end of the film, the payoff is fantastic. The strongest performance, though, is probably Leandro Firmino da Hora as Little Zé, whose cutthroat aggression drives the film with phenomenal energy; most of the tension in the movie comes from his loose cannon attitude and lust for power (akin to Joe Pesci in Goodfellas.) There are countless other fantastic performances, primarily from child actors, that I wish I could talk about them all. I am truly blown away by the talent present in City of God.
I knew that City of God was based on a true story going in, but when Meirelles hits you with that “Based on a True Story” at the end of the film, it gets you right in the stomach. The movie is such a brutal portrayal of a tragic way of life that still exists today. The script is full of these moments where we really see how such innocent lives can be turned over to violence. Some characters do it for glory. Some do it because it’s in the family. Some do it because it’s their only option to stay alive. The scene where Little Zé and his crew force their new child recruit to murder another terrified child (pictured above) is simply horrifying. The worst part is that it all rings true. While the cinematic elements of the film are stunning, Meirelles finds time to tone down these effects and focus in on the real horrors of poverty-stricken urban life.
I had heard some talk about this film in the past, and I know it received widespread acclaim from critics, but I still don’t think it has the following it deserves. If we’re going to call some popular garbage like Singin’ in the Rain one of the greatest films of all time, then we should at least take a look at some of the amazing work going on abroad. City of God is one of the best foreign films out there and is one of my new personal favorites of all time. It’s a movie I want to watch again and again just to figure out how it achieves such success. This is the kind of work that makes this whole project worth it, and I hope to find more like it in the future.
Films Left to Watch: 962: