Welcome to the City of God, where “you need more than guts to be a good gangster. You need ideas.”
The 2002 film is a classic. It was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Directing and Best Cinematography, as well as a Golden Globe, and won at the Toronto International Film Festival. City of God has an 8.7 rating on IMDb and comes in at number 21 on their list of top 250 films of all time.
But the film is Brazilian, and has subtitles and no big name actors. It’s not an easy movie that will simply entertain for two hours, but is one that is filled with the complexities and emotions that make up the life of a kid living in a favela.
Every police chase, death, kiss, argument and triumph are seen through the eyes of a narrator who trying to find his way out of the Rio de Janeiro ghetto. From his view, the only way that is possible is either to sell fish, or become a cop or criminal. Rocket’s main passion, though, is photography, and like any good photojournalist, he tells a story without having to be the main focus or even in the shot.
The film follows Rocket and his friends as they grow up on the outskirts of one of Brazil’s largest cities. Some characters fall in love, some betray, some become gangsters and some die. It is not necessarily the people themselves that matter, but the location where it is all taking place. Everyone in the City of God has a role to play but ultimately it is the city itself that is the main character. Through great camera work and editing, the dusty streets and poorly built houses become the viewer’s entire world for a couple of hours, just as it is for the people on the screen.
Set mainly in the disco era of the 1970s, the films soundtrack includes James Brown, Carl Douglas (“everybody was Kung Fu fighting”) and Bachman-Turner Overdrive as well as some great Brazilian artists like Wilson Simonal and Cartola. The film also touches on many of the issues that the late ‘60s to early ‘80s became known for. There are hippies and drugs, music, dancing, racial prejudices, gender inequalities and economic divides. For the most part though, the characters in the movie aren’t thinking about these things; they are just trying to survive, and the great ensemble cast of Brazilian actors portrays that feeling of inevitability.
City of God’s tagline translates to something like “damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” and the never-ending cycle of hopelessness that the film gets across is one that, unfortunately, people all around the world can relate to. As the movie seems to have lost all chances for hope or happiness though, the viewer realizes that just as the city takes away, it also gives.
The film cannot be easily categorized as a gangster film, or a coming-of-age or a foreign drama. It touches on all these things, but does so in a smooth, understated way.
After all, it is not the film or the city that is coming to you and trying to get your attention. You have to go to it and play by its rules. And if you do, you won’t be disappointed.