“Why return to the City of God, where God forgets about you?”
‘City of God’, directed by Fernando Meirelles in 2002, is a Brazillian crime drama set in the Cidade de Deus suburb of Rio de Janeiro. The story is told through the eyes of Rocket (played by Luis Otávio as a child, then Alexandre Rodrigues as an adult). Rocket is the brother of a hood who dreams of being a photojournalist and tries desperately to avoid the ever-increasing violence of the gangs around him. He finds himself trapped between two warring rivals: the psychotic Lil Zé, played by Leandro Firmino da Hora and the pacifist turned vigilante Knockout Ned, played by Seu Jorge. It’s a film that narrates a tangle of rivalries and unlikely quests for revenge, that only in its closing moments reveals itself to be based on a true story. In many ways it’s an update of Luis Buñuel’s ‘Los Olvidados’, and includes a number of shots that seem to be a direct reference to Buñuel’s distinctively off-kilter style. ‘City of God’ has a sweeping energy and a genuinely shocking approach to depicting the violence, including one particularly unflinching scene in which one young hood is forced to murder an even younger child. This is the extraordinary power of both ‘Los Olvidados’ and ‘City of God’: to transform children into believable killers. In the end of Meirelles’ film, the adult gangsters have been replaced by their much younger protégés, those who Rocket calls ‘the runts’, and the fact that we as a viewer aren’t particularly surprised by this is a testament to how the characters and the story have developed. It’s exciting to watch, but also sobering to see such anarchic violence treated as a fact of life. It’s telling, I think, that at no point in the film is the usual visual reference of Rio de Janeiro, the statue of Christ the Redeemer, shown. As it is an almost ubiquitous signifier of the city, this must be a conscious attempt by Meirelles to highlight how the characters and the slums they live in have been abandoned by God, and how ironic the title of the film is.
Would I recommend it? Yes – it’s long but it never lets up. The worlds of the favelas are sculpted in such a way that you are immersed in the story, but also find yourself accepting the violence as normal. Watch in a double-bill with ‘Los Olvidados’ for a similar story tackling similar themes but relocated to Mexico City.