Review: City of God

Directed by Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund
Starring: Alexandre Rodrigues, Leandro Firmino, Phellipe Haagensen, Alice Braga
See more on Top 10 Films: Top 10 Films of 2003

city of god poster

“You need more than guts to be a good gangster, you need ideas.”

I’ve heard Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund’s 2004 Oscar-nominated film to be likened to Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction”. Yet, I’d hazard a guess this is more a marketing ploy to pigeonhole the film into a more saleable product. It is like saying Antonia Bird’s drama “Priest” is like “The Exorcist”. They both feature members of the church questioning their own faith after all, but the two films couldn’t be more dissimilar. Granted, “ City of God” and “Pulp Fiction” share the depiction of crime and a time-switching, non-linear narrative, but there is little ironic humour to find in Meirelles and Lund’s uncompromising film. “City Of God” isn’t interested in stylised characters that overplay the merits of the metric system or theatrical violence and pop-culture references, it cuts far closer to the bone than that. Perhaps most importantly, unlike “Pulp Fiction”, “City Of God” seeks to tell us something we didn’t already know – and I’m not talking about the French new wave.

city of god brazil film

The most telling sequence of “Cicade De Deus” (its Portuguese title) arrives somewhere near the middle when Handsome Ned, a law-abiding but unfortunate citizen of the slum, is beaten and forced to watch the rape of his girlfriend. When he returns home his family try to calm him down – he’s understandably angry and wants to make those responsible pay for their actions. Meanwhile, the gang who raped his girlfriend decide they should have killed him so head to his house. In the ensuing gun battle, two of Ned’s family are fatally shot, while he is left with a much greater punishment – he is alive, left to dwell on the events and consequences of the last few hours for the rest of his life. His need for revenge takes him to the local drug lord and a late introduction to a life of guns, cocaine, and crime.

However, Handsome Ned is, at first, only interested in revenge. He hates the drugs scene and doesn’t want his new found gang to commit murder, but he soon becomes embroiled in the day to day business of unlawful profiteering. It isn’t long before he is the one with the gun in his hand standing over a dead body. It isn’t a profound resonance within the story that stands out, it’s rather simple – the good man is brutally wronged and turns to revenge. Yet it is a distinct resonance, one which beats terrifically hard at the bloody heart of the movie. Growing up in this slum does not mean you are thrown unwillingly into a gun-toting generation who can’t read or write, where drugs become a staple part of your diet, and the police are as much a threat as your best friends. It’s simply part of everyday life. Being unwilling is hardly questioned by anyone in the movie – you are simply part of that lifestyle whether you like it or not. The degree to which you exploit it defines the people of the City of God. Crime lord Li’l Ze kills his rivals to control the drugs and gun business; Handsome Ned joins forces with a rival gang to wage a revenge war against Li’l Ze who was responsible for the rape of his girlfriend; and narrator Rocket becomes the newspaper’s inside man, photographing the violence for the rest of the world to see.

city of god brazil movie 2003

The film’s narrator Rocket produces the slight glimmer of hope from the city no one wants anything to do with. His dream isn’t governed by money or power (indeed, the fact he wants a camera champions the power of art as an escape form, and with respect to the film itself, the opportunity to shed light on a subject that would otherwise be rejected and ignored by the outside world). Rocket’s dalliance with crime is beautifully portrayed by Meirelles and Lund – the will-he-won’t-he commit robbery is nicely underplayed. But in all this the directors remain very truthful to both the humanity and brutal nature of this life in the slum. The violence is never over-stylised but they don’t hold back any punches, while even the most hardened and psychotic are given their moment of salvation. In one of the film’s most poignant moments, Li’l Ze is left to ponder his best friend falling in love with a girl and leaving the slum. For what could be a matter of seconds he appears to wonder what could have been: could he find love, could he find happiness? Then the moment is gone, and his need for power and control leads the film to another of its shocking and brutal moments.

Mierelles and Lund hold back, however, the film’s most devastating and ugly aspect until the end. Like an after-thought (very much a metaphor for the way the children of the slum are left to grow up and supplement this cycle of violence and crime) Rocket describes his first introduction to what he calls ‘the runts’. This group of children begin life with nothing but crime to look forward to. In the film’s defining moment, Li’L Ze’s gang corner two of the children. He blames them for breaking his own rules for the slum. The kids, who couldn’t be more than ten or eleven years old, cower in a corner, crying and obviously very frightened. Li’l Ze taunts them before asking them what they would prefer – a bullet in the hand or the foot. They gingerly hold out their hands after much persuasion but he shoots them in the foot anyway. He then orders one of his own gang – who couldn’t be much older than the children – to choose one child and shoot them dead. Meirelles and Lund film the whole sequence with fast cuts and handheld camerawork. It very much has a documentary realism about it that is a quality of the entire film.

Fernando Meirelles Katia Lund cicade de deus

A minute passes while the gang member chooses his victim. You can see he doesn’t want to do it but he knows he’ll be killed too if he fails the task. He aims at one of the boys and shoots. The whole sequence is an ugly but superbly-crafted precursor to the film’s finale when the other members of the ‘runts’ take revenge by killing Li’l Ze and thus propagating the cycle of murder, violence and crime in the slum. The lasting image Meirelles and Lund leave us with is the ‘runts’ creating a black list of everyone they don’t like. Their plan: to shoot them all dead. Welcome to the next generation.

“City Of God” is a perfectly-crafted, devastatingly effective, moving and haunting film. It will stay with you long after the credits have rolled. This brilliant film is easily the best movie of 2003. It was nominated for four Academy Awards in 2004 (the year the third “Lord of the Rings” movie won best film seemingly be default), and won a Bafta for best editing.

Top 10 Films Rating: 10/10

About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. CMrok93 Reply

    I’m so glad you gave this a similar rating I gave it! Its one of the greatest mob films that not many people know about. So many images in this film, just make me amazed, thus the reason for my header. Great review!

  2. Fitz Reply

    I can’t stand when people say Slumdog Millionaire is better than this. Glad to see you two don’t share that sentiment.

  3. Ronan Reply

    I have this on DVD but I’ve only seen it once, can’t remember whether I liked it or not. Interesting idea for a story though, photography as a window for the world into a new and unknown environment and a means to document and understand that environment, as well as a way out of it.

  4. Rodney Reply

    I completely agree with you here Dan. City Of God is indeed a brilliant film (perhaps not the best of ’03, but certainly in the *ahem* top ten) and is a movie you need to see and experience. It’s one of those jaw droppers you can’t believe you didn’t bother with the first time round…
    It’s hard to believe places like this exist in the world… Great review.

  5. Paragraph Film Reviews Reply

    Watched this again for the first time in ages last week. It’s a great film, but not quite as good as I remembered. The acting and story is fantastic, epic and believable, but the way the film unfolds holds it back a bit; there’s flashbacks within flashbacks and it generally bounces around, trying to be smarter than it is. Unlike, say, Goodfellas, which is a similar story, all in ‘flashback’ but totally linear, and more powerful.

    That aside the story’s great, a real eye-opener (Knockout Ned / 2 Kid Shootout scenes in particular are brutal)

    Good review though, agree with everything but the final score 🙂

  6. Raghav Reply

    Definitely a movie that deserves the maximum rating (whichever system you might use). Truly compelling piece of cinema. One of the best ever.

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