he 2002 film City of God (Cidade de Deus) -highly and rightly acclaimed- takes a gritty plunge into the Brazilian favela life, portraying with painful and dismal realism the gut-wrenching underbelly of a place where a run-of-the-mill walk outside oftentimes adds up to rubbing shoulders with death.
The film yanks and hurls you violently into the vicious ghetto universe, and will have you glued to the screen from the starting blocks through riveting storytelling, engrossing, blood-thirsty, larger-than-life characters, and killer visual effects, harking back to the styles of Tarantino, Guy Richie, and Scorsese, and such classics as Pulp Fiction (1994), Goodfellas (1990), or Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998).
The movie follows the blood-ridden rise and eventual fall of Li’l Dice (who sooner rather than later is to take on the moniker Li’l Ze) in the ill-famed, godforsaken neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro called the City of God- home to the dirt-poor, and a pit of snakes filled to overflowing with hard-bitten,blood-thirsting hoods and all the unwanted dregs of society.The course of his life interweaves and is contrasted with the fates of others from the same neighborhood, the chief story thus being intertwined with several other individual ones, with everything being narrated from the outset by Buscape, aka Rocket, a sideliner and somewhat of a square peg with regard to street life, and who dreams of becoming a professional photographer and make it out of the ghetto.
City of God holds out a tough pillow for us to swallow and there is no question it leaves a bad taste. The reality it puts forward is unadorned and anything but sugarcoated. It pulls no punches and doesn’t attempt to dress up or soft-pedal what goes on around the block. On a side note, most of the actors even – and the film cast a whole lot of them- were from the same streets the movie was to be shot on. Not only they weren’t exactly actors, but a good part of them were up against a wall financially, which raises the question of the extent to which their acting was sheer acting- as different from what they lived day in day out.
The movie does a brilliant job in every conceivable respect. It doesn’t shy away, doesn’t go overboard, doesn’t hang fire and doesn’t jump the gun. Every moment packs a wallop and is pitch-perfect. The story is nail-biting and virtually watertight as far as I can see, and the structure and image gimmicks are smart, imaginative, and a nice touch. I really can’t begin to praise enough the use of camera, being arguably the best I’ve seen to date, with the handycam-filmed scenes exuding heart-pounding tension and anxiety. Whip-smart transitions and invisible cuts, the occasional so-called God’s eye (characteristic of Tarantino), jump cuts, and match cuts – the whole works to spice things up and keep them interesting as they come.
Everything shines through from where I stand, and the film delivers the goods in spades. That said, the way I see it, the centerpiece is still the story. The story of Rocket, Li’l Ze and the never-ending story of the hood. The odyssey of a trigger-happy murderer who, in the tradition of Escobar in Medellin, fast-tracks his mobster career by killing his way to the top. The harrowing and heart-rending images of precocious, murderous, cold-blooded, and hair-trigger children that bite more than talk and get off on killing, can’t but make your skin crawl and your hair stand on end.
The wind-up of the film is none the rosier either, as it concludes on the same bleak note, suggesting the vicious grip on the City of God cannot seem to be broken, in that as soon as the top dog is taken out, there’s always another in line poised to stride forward, pick up the pieces and the reins of the business momentarily up for grabs, and go at it hammer and tongs building a new house of cards- bound to end up in a pool of blood once more.