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City of God

Life in the Ghetto

When you first hear the words "City of God," visions of a lush, warm paradise come to mind. Where else would God want to live, right? But like most things, the idea and the reality are two very different animals. The city in question is actually a hellish slum on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro considered one of the most dangerous places in all of Brazil; a far cry from heaven.

The film City of God (Cidade de Deus, the original title), based on the novel by Paulo Lins and directed by Kátia Lund and Fernando Meirelles, is a harrowing look into the lives of a group of young people as they carve out their lives in this destructive environment. Some go to school, some are petty thieves, some are bloodthirsty psychopaths, some are tenderhearted and all are a bunch of stoners. Everyone has a nickname; the narrator of the film, newcomer Alexandre Rodrigues, is dubbed "Rocket".

Rocket is an aspiring photographer who wants what most boys his age want - to get laid. He finds his chance with a classmate, Marina (Graziella Moretto), for whom he would do anything. While on a mission to score some weed for his lady, he runs into some an old buddies from the slums: Li'l Zé (Leandro Firmino da Hora), formerly known as Li'l Dice (Douglas Silva) before he became a gun wielding, drug dealing psycho devoid of a conscious, and his sidekick Benny (Phelipe Haagensen), the soon to be "coolest gangster in all of the City of God" who used to follow around a group of hoodlums called "the Tender Trio" of which Rocket's older brother was a member. They have now surpassed their mentors and are movin' on up Jeffersons style.

Soon enough Li'l Zé outgrows his breeches and goes on a power trip the size of Mariah Carey's ego (maybe it was all the cocaine he was snorting up his nose). He launches a war with a rival drug dealer called Carrot (Matheus Nachtergaele), who has in turn teamed up with a vigilante, Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge), who has very personal reasons for taking Zé down.

The majority of the film is told through a series of non-consecutive flashbacks structured by stories which span over two decades - "The Sixties," during which the City of God was shady but everything was new so it wasn't so bad, and "The Seventies." when living conditions went from bad to worse and corruption became a part of daily life. The complex, extremely well edited stories seem like they are worlds away yet are as real and complex as your own life.

Three scenes stand out from the rest: "Story of the Apartment," which blithely recounts the history of an apartment in which Li'l Zé holds court, "Flirting with Crime," a funny section in which Rocket and his buddy try to make some fast cash by turning to crime but end up liking everyone they meet so much so that they just can't get themselves to rob them and "The Runts," which contains one of the most disturbing scene in the movie. A group of nine-year olds called "The Runts" is breaking the unspoken rules of the streets and defying the drug lords, so Li'l Zé hunts them down and corners two. In the scene a haughty hoodlum is reduced down to a sniffling child when forced to choose between getting shot in the hand or in the foot.

In all three scenes, indeed in every segment of the film, Lund and Meirelles create a perfect balance of stylized, ingenious creativity (found in films like Pulp Fiction and Amelie), and a harsh grittiness that is accessible rather than overbearing. It's realistic at the same time it's as surreal as The Lost Boys in a Peter Pan fantasy.

City of God can be compared to Larry Clark's debut Kids in that it uses primarily non-professional actors - kids off the street - and maps the devastation of a group of aimless children surviving in harsh environments. But this movie takes it up a couple of notches and is ultimately uplifting. The directorial style could also be compared to Guy Ritchie but this film has substance over dry British humor.

This is one of the best movies out there. Despite the fact that it looks terribly depressing, it's not. The filmmakers do provide a light at the end of the tunnel. It somehow makes all the crime, bloodshed and trauma seem bearable. And you survive right along with the City of God residents.


City of God
Rated R
2 hours 13 minutes

Alexandre Rodrigues
Matheus Nachtergaele
Alice Braga
Seu Jorge
Leandro Firmino da Hora