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|The magnificent City of
God has still not received
it's proper due
City of God (2002)
Directors: Fernando Meirelles
and Katia Lund
By JIM CAROLUS
STATIC and FEEDBACK staff writer
I have nothing against Rob Marshall’s Chicago. I
found it to be an exceptionally constructed
rediscovery of all that musicals can offer. All
sparkle and shimmer, it is nothing less than a
highly impressive cinematic accomplishment.
But it was not the best film of 2002.
That award goes to Fernando Meirelles and
Katia Lund’s City of God, a film that wasn’t even
eligible for a Best FOREIGN film Oscar due to a
technical issue regarding the films distribution.
The Academy attempted to sugarcoat the
problem by throwing a Best Director nod to
Meirelles, but that did little to bring this mind-
blowing, hyper-kinetic masterpiece to the public
eye. Its continued obscurity is one of the greatest
sins ever committed by American advertisers.
I’m starting to think it was intentional. This film not only blew every American film out of the water in 2002, it
stands among the best films of this decade, irrespective of their country of origin. Chicago is a very good movie,
but even calling City of God a “movie” somehow seems to diminish it; it’s a film that is so powerful, you’ll forget
you’re watching entertainment – even while being deliriously entertained.
The film has been described as “the Brazilian Goodfellas,” but that description is actually a bit limiting. To be
sure, this film delivers the same adrenaline rush as Scorsese’s 1990 classic. But it’s more like “the Brazilian
Goodfellas if co-directed by Steven Soderbergh (in Traffic mode) and edited by David Fincher (in Fight Club
mode).” If you are a fan of any of these directors, City of God is essential viewing. If you like them all, what are
you still doing reading this review? You’ve got an amazing experience waiting for you!!
The film is imbued with all the texture of an epic, tracing the multi-decade rise and fall of Rio de Janeiro’s most
horrifying slum through the eyes of a young photographer desperately yearning to leave before he reaches his
twenties (few make it to 30 in this violence-soaked barrio). If this was a work of fiction, it would be hailed as a
But it isn’t. It is absolutely true.
In addition to being factually based (its narrator is a real person), the entire film pulsates with the sort of realism
that is impossible to construct…it feels alive, and terrifyingly so. These are not just actors and sets, but real
people in real locations that they, sadly, know all-too-well. Leandro Firmino, the actor portraying Lil’ Ze (the most
vicious thug in a film filled with vicious thugs), was an actual resident of the “ciudad de deus”, who had never
acted before. He’s astounding, so filled with anger and hate that one fears he is conjuring these emotions from
experience. A scene in which he pulls a gun on an innocent man for “bumping” him in the street is so evocative it
comes close to making you physically ill. There are people like this all over the world, and Firmino captures what
is so terrifying about them (a combination of arrogance and hopelessness) as few actors ever have (and never
on this kind of scale).
The rest of the performances do not disappoint, but the direction is the biggest showstopper of all. The visual
intensity and innovation never subside, not even for the bleak, heartrending finale that brings everything we’ve
seen to its logical terminus. It’s literally exhausting. With cameras swooping and diving around the city, Meirelles
and Lund unfold their cinematic vision as nothing less than a roller-coaster ride through the bowels of hell.
And what a hellish cauldron the “City of God” truly is. By the time the films 130 minutes have transpired, we feel
as if we know every inch of the slum, every resident, every crushed hope. We’ve been jolted, amazed, and even
occasionally amused (the film is not without humor or heart), when we aren’t wincing at the sight of nine-year-
olds forced to shoot their own playmates as a “test” of…something.
You see, there is no loyalty in the “City of God”. Each murder is followed (as soon as possible) by another
murder. The goal in this place, it seems, is to kill everyone off before they kill you. How interesting that the most
striking illustration of a “culture of violence” I have ever seen takes place in a community too poor to even afford
the kinds of media so frequently (and lazily) blamed for the smaller-scale problems in America and elsewhere in
the civilized world. These people aren’t violent because of video games, they’re violent because they have no
I admired the temerity of this film’s creators to get such an uncompromising film made, particularly on location.
The film shares its honest approach to difficult material with Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, never preaching or
condescending to the audience, but rather encouraging them to understand before judging. Like that film, City of
God never downplays the horrific repercussions of its subject matter, but it also refuses to insult the audience’s
intelligence. The result is a film that is nearly impossible to find fault with, in any way. Maybe a few of the editing
choices are a bit too derivative of American music videos, but you’ll be so absorbed by everything else that it won’
t matter in the slightest.
I’ve rambled enough. You owe it to yourself to see this movie. I can only think of two other movies that have
forced such a strong, sudden reappraisal of what makes great movies great. One was Pulp Fiction, back in 1994.
And the other? Goodfellas.
This one won’t let you down. That’s a promise.