City of God is a beautifully shot and vibrant Brazilian film which explores life growing up in the favelas (housing projects) of Rio de Janeiro. We follow a young boy nicknamed "Rocket" as he struggles to carve out a life for himself amongst the poverty and crime. Beautifully shot on location with many amateurs playing parts in the film this is a violent, visually exciting and ultimately touching tale.
The film covers a period of over 20 years, and while "Rocket" tries to avoid a life of crime by starting a career as a photographer, there are plenty of other characters who take us on a blood soaked journey to the very heart of the criminal underworld. Based on the epic book "Cidade de Deus" by Paulo Lins, a native of the favelas the film has an authentic feel to it and the story is brought vividly to life before your eyes.
"Rocket" watches his friends graduate up through the criminal ranks to become serious gangsters. In particular the cold-blooded Lil' Dice (later Lil' Ze) who develops a taste for blood very early in life and goes on to become the godfather of the area. Police corruption and drugs lead to gang wars and "Rocket" finds himself caught in the middle.
The action unfolds through a series of jumps back and forward in time and a large cast of characters. The director Fernando Meirelles isn't afraid to mix techniques and he employs a vast array of styles. The resulting film is very complex but the story shines through as clever editing is employed to great effect and a strong screenplay holds everything together.
As things get more and more violent at home "Rocket" is afforded more opportunities to escape the favela. He starts working at a newspaper, meets a girl and accidentally embarks on a photography career which seems likely to get him killed. He begins to photograph the criminals running the favela for the newspaper.
The contrast between other areas of Rio such as the beach or city centre and the favela is stark and jarring and you wonder whether "Rocket" can reconcile the two sides of his life. Despite the heavy subject matter the film retains a weird kind of positivity which is echoed in the rich display of colours and the varied sights and sounds of Brazil's capital city.
Before long Lil' Ze is growing into a Scarface style psycho and his paranoia can no longer be controlled by his gentler more likeable sidekick Benny. The violence is fast, brutally realistic and unremitting throughout this film. The difference here is the consideration of the effect on the victims and the aggressors. Life is cheap in this environment but we are left in no doubt about the damage all the violence does to the society as a whole, it certainly isn't glamourised.
There are both tragic and uplifting twists before the film comes to an end. This easily swallows two hours without losing your interest, the pace of the film and the mixture of fast cuts, jumping back and forth in time and a huge cast of characters combine to keep you captivated throughout. The raw intensity of the action, the gritty setting and the heartfelt acting give this a unique feel rarely achieved.
The cast are excellent, Alexandre Rodrigues plays "Rocket" and narrates the film, a quiet considered character with serious photography skills, he works well as an observer of the madness around him. Leandro Firmino plays Lil' Ze and he is frighteningly convincing in the madman role. Phellipe Haagensen plays Benny and deserves a special mention for a fantastic performance as the charismatic peacemaker who seems completely out of place amongst all the violence. All of the cast without exception do a great job here, every character is convincingly portrayed and the emotion they convey is palpable which is especially impressive when you consider that most of the cast is made up of amateurs.
Fernando Meirelles does a great job here and I'm sure he'll make more quality films over the next few years. City of God is brilliant, as a piece of storytelling it is captivating, it also works well as a fast-paced gangster film but the mixture of drama, romance and comedy thrown in elevate it well above the norm. Powerful and original this is nothing short of a masterpiece.