• Post category:Movies
  • Post last modified:January 11, 2022

City of God: More Hell Than Heaven


Do we need to see a movie that turns a huge social problem into a flashy gangster movie reminiscent of GoodFellas (1990)? Apparently we do. This film caused quite a stir in Brazil and won over most critics in the rest of the world upon its international release. I am one of those who are thoroughly impressed by what the filmmakers have achieved, but I also believe the problems depicted here are glorified.

Set in a favela
Directors Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund released a short subject about City of God earlier in 2002 and then made a feature-length film. City of God is, ironically, a godforsaken place more reminiscent of hell than heaven. It’s a favela, a shantytown, built in the 1960s as a part of Rio de Janeiro. Life here is hard. It’s not like Sicily a while ago when the Mafia ran everything. City of God would actually benefit from being run by the Cosa Nostra. A least there would be some kind of order. No, this is a place where children murder each other just to prove points. There is no law; the policemen are brutal and corrupt and pose no danger to the gangs that keep City of God a violent and destitute place.

We are introduced to a number of kids who live here. Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues) does his best staying out of trouble. He’s fascinated by the art of photographing; this character was based on that of famed Brazilian photographer Wilson Rodriguez. He’s the central character, although not essential to the film. Another kid remains one of the most intriguing characters, Li’l Ze (Leandro Firmino da Hora). When we first meet him he looks just like any other kid in the neighborhood, but after a while we learn that this one is special. He actually enjoys killing people. He commits his first mass murder at the tender age of, say, seven or eight. At the age of 18, he’s the local boss, the kind of Tony Montana lunatic who’ll kill anyone who gives him the wrong look.

Like so many others in City of God, he’s headed for a violent end, but not before starting a bloody gang war.

No dull spots here
Fernando Meirelles used to make commercials, and that shows. The movie is quick-paced and the camera does all sorts of tricks; the filmmakers make sure there are no dull spots. The story is equally important. Novelist Paulo Lins lived in City of God; screenwriter Bráulio Mantovani keeps the story relevant throughout the picture, chronicling three decades and taking the viewers through a journey that is confusing at times… only to clarify things by employing flashbacks that flesh out what just transpired a while ago.

Cinematographer César Charlone gives the movie a sun-drenched look; the star closest to our planet is just as unforgiving as the gangs that rule this part of Rio. The cast is motley. Matheus Nachtergaele is one of Brazil’s most celebrated actors and he plays “Carrot”, one of the gang leaders in the favela. However, many of the faces in the cast belong to amateur actors who were born and raised in City of God, lending the picture yet another level of authenticity.

There is a horrible scene in the film where Li’l Ze, this vile creature, forces a small kid to commit murder. He has to choose which one of his buddies should die, and eventually he puts a bullet in the oldest one. It’s an unforgettable sequence, brilliantly directed and performed, but it does make one think about the real-life situation in Rio de Janeiro and many other places in the world. Most of the time, the directors make City of God look like an exciting, cool place to live… when, in fact, its denizens need a good spanking. 

City of God 2002-Brazil. 131 min. Color. Produced by Andrea Barata Ribeiro, Mauricio Andrade Ramos. Directed by Fernando Meirelles, Kátia Lund. Screenplay: Bráulio Mantovani. Novel: Paulo Lins. Cinematography: César Charlone. Editing: Daniel Rezende. Cast: Matheus Nachtergaele (Sandro (“Carrot“ Cenoura), Seu Jorge (Mané “Knockout Ned” Galinha), Alexandre Rodrigues (Rocket), Leandro Firmino da Hora (Li’l Ze), Phelipe Haagensen, Jonathan Haagensen.

Trivia: Original title: Cidade de Deus. Followed by a TV series, City of Humans (2003-2005), which was subsequently turned into a movie, City of Men (2007).

BAFTA: Best Editing.

Last word: “It was easy to work with [the non-professional actors] because they were so enthusiastic about doing the film. They liked being respected and for people to listen to them and to applaud them. We auditioned 2000 kids from poor areas and chose 200. We spent six months working on improvising scenes. They ended up creating about 70% of the dialogue. They were so keen that they used to arrive at work an hour before shooting started.” (Meirelles, BBC)



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