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:: City of God

City of God is a thrilling and often violent drama about the rise and fall of gangsters and drug dealers in the slums of Rio de Janiero. These are actual events from the 1960s and 1970s and formed the background for the novel of the same name. Director Fernando Meirelles has created an intense and distinctive film with fast cuts and hand held camera sequences.

The film is narrated by Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), a budding photographer who relates the story of the fearsome gang leader Li’l Ze (Leandro Firmino da Hora). Li’l Ze reigned as king of the drug lords in the 1970s and the story shows his ruthless leap to power, from the age of fourteen, followed by the war against opposing gangsters Carrot (Matheus Nachtergaele) and Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge). Rocket generally tells the story in chronological fashion but he often stops to present other information about a new character. It doesn’t go too far astray though Rocket, himself, is an honest photojournalist who avoids the criminal life but is still connected by association.

There are extreme situations in the slum (to which the title of this film is named) and the teenage children involved in the gangs and drugs, such was Li’l Ze’s upbringing. This depiction is uncompromising in the realism, thereby making City of God exhilarating from a filmmaking point of view. To see homeless children kill with the same callousness as adults is grim. Their goal is to find guns, declare an allegiance to a gang, and then go out to kill. All this said, Meirelles brings occasional moments of cruel humour and levity to keep the film from being too bleak. The relentless action is underscored by unforgiving poverty.

The characters cover a good range of personalities. Each major player is distinct and one can sense how deep each one’s inclination toward crime is due to natural-born tendencies. Li’l Ze had a murderous streak even as a young child, while Rocket tries to start a life of crime after being frustrated at earning money in legitimate jobs. But he doesn’t have it in him. Superb performances of a largely non-professional cast recruited from the streets make it all the more believable. City of God carries the passion and weight of any arthouse film and has tremendous impact.

The film ends in the early 1980s with new kids with guns picking up where the old kids left off. With so much energy expended on the screen, the film runs out of steam slightly. But it’s still a remarkable film in terms of substance and it communicates deeply.

Screening at Cinema Nova, KinoDendy Cinemas, and the George Cinemas.