City of God

Rocket looks at his camera in City of God

“It was like a message from God: ‘Honesty doesn’t pay, sucker.’ ”

I’m fortunate to have been born with options: education options, occupation options, food options, and social 0ptions. City of God is a film about people who have very few, if any, options in life. Directed by Brazilian directors Fernando Meirelles (Blindness, The Constant Gardener) and Kátia Lund (News from a Personal War) and starring a whole host of locals with little to no acting experience, this was a fantastic film that was very eye-opening for me as a middle-class American. It’s not all doom and gloom, though—there are some fun scenes and characters, and I really enjoyed this rather than simply thinking it was important. The film is in Portuguese with subtitles, but that didn’t really hurt the experience. I’ll admit, I’m not really an expert on films coming out of South America, but I really loved this one.

The story opens with a group of children growing up in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, where crime is a way of life and it takes an enormous amount of effort and luck to keep your nose clean. Some of the children (mostly teenagers) plan to rob a nearby hotel, and something goes wrong, which brings the police down on the community. Fast-forward a bit and these kids are now young adults figuring out what to do with their lives. One of them, Rocket, is an aspiring photographer trying his best to be one of the good guys; another, Lil’ Ze, has turned into a ruthless criminal running most of the drug trade in the area. Rocket finds himself caught in the middle of a lot of forces that he can’t control, and it’s all he can do to survive in this brutal neighborhood.

Why return to the City of God, where God forgets about you?

As I mentioned, the directors intentionally hired mostly amateur actors, many from the actual slums they were filming in, so the acting is not stellar, although it wasn’t bad. But the characters in this film were amazing. From the leads Rocket and Lil’ Ze, to supporting characters Carrot, Benny, and Knockout Ned, this is a colorful, memorable, and complex set of characters that really brings this story and its world to life. Many films dealing with growing up in the slums would rely on caricatures and stereotypes to try to win sympathy and create villains, but this film does a great job of showing that life sucks for everyone here, and it’s more luck than determination that dictates whether you get caught up in the bad things or not.

A Brazilian boy grimaces and aims his gun in City of God
If violence perpetrated by children bothers you, this film will be hard to watch.

This film features a very wide range of emotions. It would be easy to focus on the sad aspects of life in these slums, but you also get some fun moments of these young adults simply trying to be young adults. Viewers will laugh, and they might cry, but the film does everything well, from lighter moments like teenagers whining about still being virgins to some pretty dark moments like kids shooter each other. Toward the end of the film, there are also some pretty competent action sequences as well. It’s rare that a film that tries to do it all does it all well, but that’s exactly what this film does.

City of God is a great film, but it’s admittedly not for everybody. The violence and dark subject matter, while not overdone, might turn some people off, and the foreign language dialogue might throw some viewers. But this film does an amazing job of showing what it was like growing up and living in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, and it makes it fascinating. And if you’re looking to get into some great foreign films, this is a real gem.

View my complete list of classic, essential, or just plain good movies!

Runtime: 2:10
Director: Fernando Meirelles, Kátia Lund
Year: 2002
Genres: crime, drama
Rating: R

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