City Of God is all too often cited as the Brazilian Goodfellas.
While it’s a fine comparison to have made towards the film – there’s far more to it than simply following in the footsteps of Scorsese’s classic. Yes, it has an epic narrative which spans multiple decades and charts the lives of a group of criminals – but Fernando Meirelles’ 2002 masterpiece has its own distinctions which make it culturally and thematically unique. Scorsese wouldn’t begin a movie with Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro chasing a fleeing chicken through the streets of New York.
It’s also significant that City Of God’s characters aren’t drawn to the glitz and glamour of criminality – instead drawn to the path as a way to break free from their oppressive and poverty stricken slum backgrounds. There’s true horror in the films portrayal of gang culture, with even young children driven to touting handguns and murdering civilians.
Beginning in the late 60‘s, City of God immediately depicts a myriad of young characters who are already living a life of petty robberies and armed stick-ups. Known as the ‘Tender Trio’, the actions of the gang are watched over by Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), who plans to avoid a path of crime and aspires to become a photographer. But, things aren’t that simple – as his older brother Goose (Renato de Souza), is already engaged in criminal activity as a member of the Trio.
From these early acts of violence, things spiral irreversibly out of control when the young and impressionable Li’l Dice (Douglas Silva) massacres a number of civilians following a rudimentary stick-up by the other members of the Trio. Along with his friend Benny, Li’l Dice overthrows the members of the trio and grows up to become the leader of a major drug-empire and an imposing figure with a fearsome reputation of violence under the new name of Lil’ Ze (Leandro Firmino da Hora). The wars between the gangs of Cidade de Deus continues to affect Rocket’s life throughout the following decades of the 70s and 80s – with no clear end in sight to the conflict.
While Rocket serves as both the main protagonist and the narrator of the film, it’s astonishing how every character in City of God makes a significant impact. The world depicted on screen is vibrant and detailed – with all of its characters having significant motives and their own stories to tell. Even a discussion between two women about the sexual advantages of a warm banana is memorable, despite its overall insignificance to the plot.
But while the film is effortlessly constructed in this way, it’s the performances from its largely unknown cast that help make these characters so believably engaging. The portrayals of both young and old Lil’Dice/Zee from Douglas Silva & Leandro Firmino are particularly memorable, depicting a chillingly violent but compelling trigger-happy criminal. The scene in which the power driven gang-lord forces a young hoodlum to execute an innocent child of his choosing is almost unwatchable.
It’s also visually stunning – being a film which despite its relatively long runtime shoots by at the speed of a bullet. Cinematic flourishes like high-angle shots, photographic snapshots, split-screen and even at one point, a point of view shot from a misfired bullet – City of God’s Oscar nominated cinematography is energetic and inventive. Moments such as ‘the story of the apartment’ sequence – which charts a transformation from brothel to drug den all from a static shot – are astonishing in and of themselves.
While many films of this scope and length have problems juggling the multiple characters and ambitious scale – especially to a foreign audience – Meirelles film is never anything less than utterly engaging. From beginning to end, City of God has you gripped in its shocking and tragic world, and deserves to be considered a genre classic to sit alongside films like Goodfellas and Scarface – worthier of more than mere comparison.
City Of God certainly looks decent in high definition with a colourful and vibrant transfer that’s undoubtedly a major step up from those seen on DVD. Yet it’s also heavy in grain, perhaps unavoidably so – with the film being shot in a realistic and gritty documentary style. Occasionally stunning, but other times underwhelming – it’s an average HD transfer.
Sadly nothing new, with the existing features simply carried over in standard definition. What this does mean however, is that the superb documentary, News From A Personal War is here – delving into the real life violence which has inspired the film – and showcasing just how realistic City of God actually is. There’s also a EPK style short interview with director Fernando Meirelles which is all too brief to be of any real substance.
City of God remains a kinetic and visually exciting gangster film, with strong characters and an epic multi-decade spanning narrative. But with no new added content and mixed bag of a transfer – City Of God makes for something of an underwhelming Blu-ray as it nears its 10th anniversary.
Final Rating: 3/5
City Of God is released on Blu-ray today.
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