Dan Gertler reviews: City of God

Fernando Meirelles erupts on the big screen with this shocking and breathtaking 2003 film. The new, talented director presents the incomprehensible complexity of poverty-stricken Rio, while directly referring to the growing drug problem that dominates the streets, and to the corrupted authorities that benefit from it. This is not another movie about drugs in the ghetto. It is a moving, human, gentle representation, and the naïve and simplistic aspiration of the main character for happiness is what accentuates the tragic reality of the City of God’s, not to say Rio de Janeiro’s, people.

From the first minute the viewer is thrown into the fast pace life of the favelas where a chicken escapes from a feast the local gang is having on the street. The camera focuses on one character, Buscape (Rocket in English), who then narrates the story of his life in City of God from childhood. From a very young age the gangs have easy access to money, guns and drugs. Whatever you need you take is not a philosophy but a fact of life that is applied to money, women, and the lives of others. Life are very fragile here, as all the gangs fight with each other as well as amongst themselves over control of the city.


Despite its vivid display of violence, there is one thing that I find extremely sophisticated and human about this film. It is the fact that there are no bad guys; not even Ze Pequeno (Li’l Ze). It is hard to say that a drug dealer who takes sadistic pleasure in killing both enemies and innocents (take for example the brothel robbery scene) is anything but pure evil. But despite it all, I believe the film encourages us to grant this ugly, poor, unpopular man a bit of forgiveness.

Overall, this is both a tragic and beautiful film. The cinematography and techniques it uses are thrilling, to say the least, like the way it uses Buscape both as an active narrator and as a photographer. The combination of his over-voice, his photos that turn into moving captions, and his role as a character in the movie create a sense of a reality that has been mixed with fiction. It gives the effect that time and space do not apply to the City of God, and that the story is one that has been told many times before, and will be told many times to come.

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