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"A staggering masterpiece."
"The film does not shock for shock's sake. It does so only to be truthful."
"It's a sobering look into the depths of a dark abyss."
City of God  


Sandro Cenoura: Matheus Nachtergaele
Mane Galinha (Ned): Seu Jorge
Buscape (Rocket): Alexandre Rodrigues
L'il Ze Leandro: Firmino da Hora
Bene (Benny): Phelipe Haagensen
Cabeleira (Shaggy): Johnathan Haagensen
Review December 2002

Miles outside Brazil's resort city of Rio de Janeiro lies the "City of God," a slum of all slums, built as a shelter for the homeless and poverty stricken. But within this slum, a violent turf war is about to erupt between gangs battling for supremacy over drugs and money. In the middle of it all is a young boy named Buscape, aka Rocket, who stands, camera ready, in the city streets where violence and bloodshed have become the norm. A staggering masterpiece from newcomer, Fernando Meirelles, "City of God" is a graphic, striking look at how violence first came to the "City of God" and how it has forever shaped the city's culture.

Caught in the middle of a gang war, Rocket flashes back and narrates the evolution of violence in the "City of God," beginning with the formation of the Tender Trio, a group of three young hoodlums, one of whom happens to be his older brother. However, Rocket is not like his brother, nor does he wish to be like him. He is too afraid. But he also does not wish to work a conventional job selling fish either. He wishes to be more than that and has his sights set on becoming a photographer.

In the meantime, he just tries to stay out of everyone's way. As he states, The Tender Trio are amateur hoodlums. They make a living stealing gas, knocking over food stands, and bullying other people. Yet, according to Buscape, they did not have what it takes to become professional hoods. That was where L'il Dice enters the picture. A young kid with the mind of a gangster, L'il Dice infiltrates the Tender Trio and suggests a bigger take: a bordello heist. The hoods mock him, but go along with it, and have L'il Dice stand watch while they raid the place. The Tender Trio did not plan to commit murder during their crime, but somehow the majority of brothel patrons are executed.

As the cops attempt to track down the Trio, L'il Dice quietly plans his next move with his friend, Bene. As is later revealed, L'il Dice was behind all of the murders at the brothel. Meanwhile, the Tender Trio dissolves violently. With greed and a thirst for power, L'il Dice and Bene take advantage of the Trio's absence and slowly grow into powerful warlords, unafraid to use violence to achieve their means. Ironically, by eliminating all of their enemies and controlling all of the drugs in and out of the city, the two create a more tranquil society.

Throughout these events, Buscape watches his steps cautiously as L'il Dice murders his brother and Bene takes his girlfriend, Angelica. Although times are still tough, Bene takes a liking to Buscape and they become mutual friends in the same clique - one that is hippy-like, involving dancing, music, fashionable clothes, and the beach. In fact, Bene begins to break away from the violence that has engulfed L'il Dice. So while he becomes the cool-headed one, L'il Dice becomes the hotheaded one. As a symbol of change and power, L'il Dice changes his name to L'il Ze and begins to exact revenge on those he doesn't like, even those who work for him.

As Bene and Angelica become closer, Bene wishes to escape the thug life and start a family. Soon, his thoughts rub off on L'il Ze. But Ze's attempts at acquiring a girlfriend result in tragedy and cycles the violence again. He lusts after another man's girl, rapes her, and murders many of the boyfriend's family members. Knockout Ned is his name, an expert in karate, who is reluctant to join the war; however, because of the violence done to his family, he is easily convinced to exact revenge. While each side recruits more members, many of whom are children, the war escalates into a final showdown. All the while, Buscape, now a photographer for a local paper, observes and records the tumultuous conclusion.

Gritty, realistic, and disturbing, "City of God" is a Brazilian "Scarface," about the rise and fall of gang lords and life in the poverty stricken ghettos outside of Rio. Interestingly, the protagonist in the film is not a person, but rather, a place: Cidade de Deus. And unfortunately for most residents, the city was more like a war zone than a shelter. From the 1960's through the mid-80's, the city gained a reputation as being one of the most dangerous places in the world, full of muggers and bandits, drug dealers and gangs, all ruthless and heavily armed. And this film easily shows why and how. Paulo Lins wrote the novel for which the film is based and much of his novel stems from his own personal experience, having been raised in the infamous favela since he was seven years old.

With its honest portrayal of gang violence, little children are recruited in the battle for supremacy, oftentimes killing without consequence and oftentimes killing many innocent people. Sometimes, they even kill each other as is depicted in one of the more troubling scenes. Such pictures have caused many to leave the theater in disgust. But it's hard to mask the reality. These are real life events inspired by Wilson Rodriguez, a photographer who, like Lins, grew up in the "City of God." The film does not shock for shock's sake. It does so only to be truthful.

One of the most impressive things about this film is how it is told. Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund do a phenomenal job of piecing all of the plots and subplots together without missing a beat. I particularly loved how the film would introduce a character at a point in time and then come back to their story later on, when it made more sense. Equally impressive is the way they flashback to show details of things not easily seen the first time around. They reveal these things without being too conspicuous. It was like an intricately woven piece of art - simply brilliant. In addition, the coordination efforts alone involving workshops for the nearly 120 or so children and other non-professional actors involved is amazing. Such authenticity makes the universe vivid and believable.

In the end, we're left with a moral: a society that has been built with a history of violence will always be violent for future generations to come. It becomes intertwined with its culture. We see that in Knockout Ned and we see that in other innocent bystanders, who as a result of indirect violent acts become violent themselves. And that is its tragedy - a gloomy outlook and never ending cycle, where hopes and dreams are few and the rule of the gun is supreme. It's a sobering look into the depths of a dark abyss.

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