Although it arrived in theaters in the United States last winter unaccompanied by the fanfare of other Oscar contenders such as "Master and Commander" and "The Last Samurai," and contains a cast largely unknown in the United States, "City of God" is nevertheless an impressive, innovative film that ranks among the best films released in the United States during 2003.
"City of God" tells the story, through a span of approximately 20 years, of a young boy named Rocket and of the city in which he lives. The film tracks Rocket, as he deals with the problems of normal teenagers and as he becomes increasingly intertwined with the surrounding world of violent crime, despite the fact the each of Rocket's efforts for his intentional entry into the world of violent crime goes comically wrong. Nevertheless, through the eyes of Rocket, we see random criminal acts give rise to a system of organized crime, the consolidation and rise of the drug trade, the genesis of a drug war between rival factions, and a city brought to the brink of peace and then into all-out war. The story is told with impressive cinematography and editing and is highly stylized, with chapter introductions, sharp camera angles and innovative narrative devices from director Fernando Meirelles and co-director Katia Lund.
From the opening scene, "City of God" grips the viewer and never really lets go throughout the film. The opening scenes contain quick cuts showing the sharpening of knives and the cleaning of chicken. Before the viewer is able to get his or her bearings, a runaway chicken leads the viewer directly to Rocket and into a potential gunfight. The film then uses flashback to provide a backstory for Rocket, another young boy named Lil' Dice and their older siblings, setting the stage for the rise of a new boss in the City of God. While the viewer continues to watch the city transform, Rocket also undergoes a transformation as he begins to grow up, worries about the relatively mundane concern of when he would lose his virginity, and soon finds himself surrounded by the drug war. In telling the story of both Rocket and the City, the film pauses to provide backstory for certain characters. An interesting thematic device, after providing a sufficient backstory concerning a character or plot development, director Meirelles will occasionally return to a scene previously included, allowing the viewer to watch the scene with greater knowledge and understanding than they possessed at first viewing.
It must be stressed the "City of God" is absolutely not a film for everyone. The film contains graphic on-screen violence that may be quite difficult for some viewers to watch. In addition, numerous scenes in the film portray children as the perpetrators of crime, the victims of crime, or both. Particularly disturbing is a scene in which a young, maybe twelve-year-old boy has a smile of unbelievable satisfaction as he shoots his gun and kills a number of unarmed individuals. In another memorable, disturbing scene, a young boy, perhaps 8 or 9 years old, shoots a younger boy from close range. Although American blockbusters have operated to desensitize viewers to violence, portrayed violence in a non-bloody or sensationalized way, or have followed violent acts with witty one-liners, by contrast, the violent bloodshed in this film is incredibly stark. Nevertheless, the violence, and its involvement of young children does not appear to be intended to be accomplished for shock value, but rather, to provide a level of realism to the film verified by the documentary described below.
Watching "City of God" is evocative of watching the film "Goodfellas." City of God takes the viewer deep inside the drug trade and crime taking place in the city, without being overbearing or seeking to do so as a means to pass judgment on the characters. Further, many of the individuals in the drug trade are not, at least initially, painted in an objectively negative light. Indeed, the film explicitly references the fact that at one point, violence was largely absent from the city and all of the various ethnic and other groups and factions of the city had been brought together. Similarly, crime and criminal intent are portrayed as largely ubiquitous in the city, and whether individuals fall victim to such crime is, in many cases, beyond their control.
As impressive as the film is, it is made more impressive by the fact that many of the actors and actresses portraying major roles in the film had little or no prior film acting experience. The performances in the film are strong and propel the film forward. These excellent performances are a tribute to the actors themselves and the talents of the director and co-director.
Although a number of potential viewers may elect to pass on "City of God" in light of the fact that the cast is a cast of virtual unknowns and the film is presented in Portuguese, passing up on this film would certainly be a mistake and would deprive the viewer of the opportunity to see one of the great movies of the last two years, as well as the opportunity to see the work of a director with a bright future ahead. Although occasionally a difficult film to watch, those who do watch the film will be greatly rewarded.