I was asked recently how what I consider the perfect film by one of my closest friends and mentors. My reply was a movie without any cons at its core but that it’s also a bit contextual too. “City of God” is a film I’ve seen twice and when I first saw it in High School it was a little traumatizing, the second time watching it though, this is a film that does everything right. There is a diverse range of characters and everyone you get to know has fascinating motivations and the fact that this is a movie with consequences.
“City of God” was directed by Fernando Meirelles and co-directed by Katia Lund and written by Bráulio Mantovani based off the book by Paulo Lins and produced by Andrea Barata Ribeiro, Mauricio Andrade Ramos, Elisa Tolomelli and Walter Salles.
The story is around those in the life of Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues) as he recounts how he ended up in the middle of a standoff between Lil’Ze (Leandro Firmino) and his gang and the police, as a recounts as a journalist who has reentered the city from his childhood, the “City of God.” From here the past is recounted from “The Tender Trio” one of whom was his older brother, to the rise of Lil’Ze to becoming boss of the “City of God” and his eventual fall and all the connections between the major players in the “City of God.”
The Pros: Writing – The writing is sharp and I love how it is broken up into chapters. We get the story of Rockets path and his brothers story in the “Tender Trio,” “Knockout Ned’s Story” “Rise of Lil’Ze” and others. All aspects of the “City of God” are explored. There was a reason it won best screenplay.
Editing – The editing is sharp and so much is portrayed when so little is shown. Be it Rocket running and us seeing through the lens of the camera or a rape scene that is only shadow and screams…it’s horrifying and you get the horror in as little time as possible. The point is made and you see just how much of a monster Lil’Ze is and what Knockout Ned and his wife felt in those moments. It deserved the awards it won for editing.
Cinematography – César Charlone did an amazing job on the cinematography! Rio is shot in bright sun or darkness with layers of light. It feels like a city on the edge and you can see the desperation of the city. We see how lived in the city is and the desperation of the people. So much is potrayed in so little and this why Charlone won an award for what he did with the cinematography.
The Characters – Most of the characters are complex, and all of them have motivations. It is that that makes a character. No one stays the same and the events that happen change the characters and make them softer (Benny falling in love) or harder (Benny’s death and Lil’Ze cruelty growing) that you can’t help but be drawn in, even if some like Lil’Ze aren’t sympathetic.
“The Tender Trio” – Shaggy (leader who is killed by the cops after he falls in love and tries to escape), Goose (Rocket’s brother who tries to get out but is killed by Lil’Ze when he says he’ll tell and is done with crime after the snitch kills the wife that Goose was sleeping with) and Clipper who joins the church after an injury and the massacre that Lil’Ze commits in the Love Motel.
Carrot – Matheus Nachtergaele is wonderful as Carrot, one of the lower level drug lords who is friends with Benny and pretty calm. He never tries to kill Lil’Ze unless Blacky was trying to kill him under orders but due to him killing Blacky I think he was counting on negotiation until Knockout Ned becomes his partner against Lil’Ze and he finally has a chance against Lil’Ze and his control of the city. He is eventually caught by the cops in the final standoff.
Angélica – Angélica is Benny’s love interest and Rocket’s friend. She also has awareness too and sees how bad things are in the city even if things are stable under Lil’Ze’s tyranny. Alice Braga is wonderful in this role. It is her compassion that changes Angélica and she is the motivation for Rocket to become a photographer and how he gets involved in the gangs to get her drugs early on.
Benny – Phellipe Haagensen plays Benny who is Lil’Ze’s childhood friend and partner in crime who eventually becomes a hippy and is loved by all in the “City of God.” He is the one person Lil’Ze cares for and that is because Benny cares. Benny always uses diplomacy and after he falls in love with the woman that Rocket loved named Angélica. His final scene is fighting with Lil’Ze over the camera to give Rocket before he is shot by Blacky. He goes from the most selfish character to the most selfless character, his arc is opposite of Knockout Ned as he becomes the pacifist while Ned becomes the conqueror.
Knockout Ned – Knockout Ned is played by Seu Jorge and is one of my favorite characters. He is a peaceful man and doesn’t even want to do violence against Lil’Ze after Lil’Ze has him strip naked during Benny’s Farewell. It is only after Lil’Ze kills members of his family and rapes his wife that he becomes the paladin and seeks revenge against Lil’Ze. He starts out not wanting to kill innocents but eventually that becomes the exception as he gets fully invested in becoming a hood and feeding the war against Lil’Ze. This eventually leads to him getting shot as the kid whose father he kills in a holdup shoots him.
The Runts Gang – The Runts gang act as a unit and are loyal to each other. This leads to them turning on Lil’Ze for killing one of their own after Lil’Ze loses everything and the price Lil’Ze paid for shooting him in the foot and killing another of them. They are all sociopathic and live for chaos and anarchy and are the ultimate symbol and reality of the desperate, armed orphans.
Lil’Ze – Leandro Firmino plays adult Lil’Ze and a different actor plays the broken kid who is a bit of sociopath since the beginning as he shoots up a love motel and from there makes his start with Benny robbing from others. From here he gets into the drug trade and becomes the most successful drug lord in the “City of God.” Eventually his selfishness devours him as he rapes Ned’s wife leading Knockout Ned’s war to lead to his end and his killing by the Runts as he killed one of theirs. He dies with nothing and in the end couldn’t even support his friend Benny leaving, the only one he truly cared about.
Rocket – Alexandre Rodrigues plays adult Rocket who is a photographer working for the paper in the “City of God.” The story is told from his perspective and is based on the events in his life. He is a great character as we see he is too kind to be a hood. In the chapter “Flirting With Crime” he helps all the people he meant to hurt and eventually becomes a journalist. Part of him being put on the right path was his brother Goose warning him against a life of crime since he knew it was empty and usually short, even if it paid. Rocket’s arc as a whole is growing up he wants to get with Angélica which connects him with Blacky and later once again Lil’Ze and Benny and his becoming a photographer leads to Lil’Ze respecting him and his sweet nature is why Benny likes him. He is the character who is the observer and documenter of everything and his ending is documenting Lil’Ze’s murder and the corruption among the cops when they shakedown Lil’Ze for his money. His story shows everything he cares about how so much of his motivation isn’t just to live, but his love for the city he comes from, “The City of God.”
Consequences – Everything has consequences, Lil’Ze failure to pay the gun merchant leads the police to turning on him and shaking him down for all his money, Knockout Ned’s killing of a police offer leads to the boy’s son killing him and others we see before like Rocket’s first camera and the camera that Benny was going to give him eventually leading to Lil’Ze treating him with respect and having him take pictures of his gang for his publicity for the gang war. It’s wonderful and we see things carry over when the Runts kill Lil’Ze since he had killed one of their to try and scare them. Consequences are what make the film beautiful and matter since reality has consequences.
The Themes – The themes are those of consequences, the cycle of revenge is a never ending one, how desperation leads to crime and that there will be people who take advantage of that desperation to their own ends (Carrot and Lil’Ze, and the Police).
The Message – The message is that you do have a choice and that choices have consequences. Rocket stays out of crime and from it is eventually able to get out, but the choices made by corrupt cops fed the cycle of violence and random innocents are killed on multiple occasions by the gangs and police which breeds the ongoing cycle of violence.
This film did so much right and even though it is long it never felt long. The action is constant and characters are always changing and relating to one another. We see the choice of not going into crime makes Rocket a good guy and how the attempt to kill Lil’Ze lead to Lil’Ze total downfall when he lost his conscience he had in Benny. No character stays the same and the message of how revenge always comes back in the end and how the cycle of corruption continues and may exist for a reason (lack of opportunities, stability when a single gang lord is in control). The fact that it is based off real events also lends power to the story and you can this is reflected in the cinematography and editing where you are in the world and feel for everyone, even the Monsters like Lil’Ze.
Final Score: 10 / 10. The perfect film from “Foreign Film Week.”