Friday, September 13, 2013

Film #102: City of God (2002)



Original Portuguese Language Title: Cidade de Deus

Directors: Katia Lund; Fernando Meirelles

Original Release Country: Brazil

Times Previously Seen: once (about eight years ago)

Rapid-Fire Summary

A couple of kids grow up in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. One wants to take photos; the other wants to be the ultimate gangster. Much sweating and pot-smoking throughout.

Extended Summary

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the 1960s. In government-built project housing outside of Rio de Janeiro, the impoverished of the region struggle to make a living. Among them are many restless youths, some of whom have resorted to crime. A particularly noted group, called the “Tender Trio,” are reasonably successful crooks, robbing gas trucks or any other valuables that they can steal from the wealthier class. A boy known as “Rocket”, the younger brother of the Trio member “Goose,” sees his brother and his companions rise to some modest power and local fame, though he admits that he hasn’t the courage to be a hoodlum, for fear of being shot.


Despite his very young age, "Li'l Dice" proves his proclivity for homicidal sadism frighteningly early.

One day, another very young, tough, and aggressive neighborhood boy known as “L’il Dice” teams up with the Trio. He feeds them the idea of robbing a motel filled with prostitutes and their clients. The Trio enact Dice’s plan, but force him to remain on lookout. When the police are called, the Trio flee, unable to find Dice. Unknown to them, Dice had sneaked into the motel before the cops arrived on the scene, where he killed several people in a homicidal mania. L’il Dice, despite being only around 10 years old, is already a bona fide psychopath.

The mass murders at the motel result in some changes. The Tender Trio disband, with one member becoming a clergyman, one being lethally shot by Li’l Dice, and Rocket’s brother Goose being killed by police as he attempted to flee the neighborhood with his girlfriend.

Several years pass. Rocket and his friends are now teenagers, though they are still living in the slums, which have grown more massive, convoluted, and packed with desperate people. Drugs are a large part of life for many people, either as users or dealers. Rocket is merely a user of marijuana, though he knows many of the main dealers in the area. Mostly, Rocket still has the more modest aspirations of becoming a photographer and finding a girlfriend.

In the middle of the bustling and chaotic slum, Li’l Dice sees opportunity. With his long-time right-hand man and best friend, Benny, by his side, Li’l Dice sees a local shaman for his blessing. Li’l Dice adopts the new name of “Li’l Ze” and mounts his takeover of all of the drug trade in the neighborhood. Within a single 24 hour period, Ze kills four of the five drug bosses in the area, taking over all operations. The only one left is the dealer known as “Carrot,” who is left to control a small part of the neighborhood.


With deadly alacrity, Li'l Ze amasses a crew of other desperate young thugs and takes over the slum's drug operations. His rise and following speak to the brutal poverty of the neighborhood.

For a time, the neighborhood is relatively peaceful. Drug use is prevalent, but crime is extremely low, being totally controlled and repressed by Ze and his crew. Things seem to be running like clockwork for the homicidal Ze and the oddly affable Benny. Benny, though, is not really a gangster at heart, as much as he has profited from the trade. He and his girlfriend decide to leave the drug business behind. At Benny’s farewell party, Ze starts an argument with his friend, angrily trying to convince him to stay with him. On the periphery, an assassin sent by Carrot takes a shot at Ze, but hits and kills Benny instead. All of a sudden, the relative peace of the neighborhood is on very shaky ground.

A short time after, Ze and his crew assault a local citizen, “Knockout Ned,” and rape his girlfriend in front of him. Even more, Ze and his crew go back to Ned’s house to confront him. There, they end up killing a few more of Ned’s family members. Ned, a former soldier and generally likable guy, joins up with Carrot and mounts an all-out war on Ze.

As all of these events unfold, Rocket is able to see it happening, as he has remained friends with Benny and acquaintances with many of the other central figures. As the feud between Ze and Ned erupts into an all-out war zone, Rocket simply tries to stay out of the way, and he continues to pursue a job as a photographer. He even manages to get a job delivering newspapers, trying to learn what he can from from the photo department.

One fateful day, Ze and his crew are lamenting the fact that Knockout Ned seems to get more publicity than them. They pull Rocket off the streets and have him take several photos of them, all brandishing their weapons. Through a mishap, the photos get developed and used by the main newspaper in the area. Rocket is terrified, thinking that Ze and his crew will kill him because of the public exposure that the photo will bring on. However, Rocket doesn’t realize that this is just what Ze and his boys wanted.


Knockout Ned, the once-peace-loving citizen of the slum who is all but forced into mounting an all-out war against the psychotic Li'l Ze. Among all of the tragedies in the tale, Ned's might just be the saddest.

Shortly after the newspaper story, another massive firefight breaks out in broad daylight in the middle of the slums, with Rocket right in the middle of the carnage, taking photos of everything. Knockout Ned is killed. Li’l Ze is captured, but bribes the police to let him go. Immediately after being freed, however, Ze is lethally and brutally gunned down by a pack of pre-pubescent boys whom he had terrorized a year prior. Witnessing it all and cataloging it with his camera is Rocket.

From his photo reporting of the drug war in City of God, Rocket gains an internship with the paper. He hopes that this will be his way out of the slums, which show signs of further impending terror, despite the death of Ze and the other powerful gangsters who have now been put down. The pack of kids who killed Li’l Ze are already plotting the deaths of other perceived enemies in the neighborhood, heralding further chaos and bloody violence.

My Take on the Film (Done after this most recent viewing, before any research)

City of God is one of the best, most unique gangster movies I’ve ever seen. And I really like a good gangster movie.

What we have with this movie is a kind of Goodfellas tale set in the sweaty, scuzzy slums of Rio de Janeiro. Seeing the rise and fall of Li’l Ze through the eyes of the harmless Rocket is equal parts compelling and horrifying. There’s often something genuinely interesting about watching a character’s ascent and descent, no matter whether they are eminently lovable or thoroughly repellent (If you read my summary above, you know which category Li’l Ze falls into).


Our narrator and moral center in the story, Rocket. The gentle young man's presence adds one of the many unique elements to this tale of gang violence.

However, it’s not just the rise-and-fall formula that makes this film great. There is such a novel blend of elements that it really defies any direct comparisons. Yes, it’s like Goodfellas, but it’s very different from it, as well. Yes, it’s like Once Upon a Time in America, but it’s very different from it, as well. You can go on and on like this, with every great gangster film and how City of God bears some similarities, but incomplete ones.

The most obvious unique element is the narration and perspective of Rocket. Usually, if a gangster tale has a narrator, it is someone who is “inside” the action – either a crook such as Henry Hill in Goodfellas or a police officer such as Donnie Broscoe in that eponymous film. Rocket, though, provides us with a rather average, admittedly unheroic onlooker who seems to report all, without every really judging. The fact that he’s eminently likable and gentle makes him the perfect teller of this otherwise brutally violent story.

The characters and acting are absolutely amazing. From the affable Rocket and Bennie, to the psychotic Li’l Dice/Ze, to the tormented Knockout Ned, every character commands your interest. They’re either funny, friendly, quirky, or just plain frightening. Even when the friendships or relationships might seem a bit strange, such as that between Li’l Ze and Bennie, the actors sell them so well that you completely buy into them. The range required by some of the parts was well-met by all of the Brazilian actors who played them, all of whom I know only from this film.


The young Li'l Dice (later 'Ze') and his right-hand man, Benny. Every actor, including the young kids, brings such life to his or her role that it's impossible not to feel the authenticity behind the story.

Another one of the rather special elements of the movie is the setting. Sure, there have been gangster movies set in run-down areas of the world, such as the projects of 1930s and 1940s New York City in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America. But those places were often thoroughly stark, grim, dominating places that overpowered all the denizens within. In City of God, the titular slum neighborhood has a very distinct look and feel, compared to other gangster films, especially in the beginning. Yes, the homes are project housing, and yes, they eventually become a dank maze of interconnected shantytowns. And yet, there are several scenes in which Rocket and some of his friends go a little ways outside of the slum and go to the beach. And the beach is beautiful enough to make you find religion. This grand contrast between the natural beauty so close at hand just makes the oppressive poverty and violence of the City that much more palpable.

If I had to gripe about the film, only two minor things come to mind. One is that the filming style employed is very often the hand-held “guerrilla” style of cinematography, mixed with some very fast editing cuts. The effect can be rather dizzying at times; something that I’m not a big fan of. However, this really didn’t detract from my enjoying the movie much at all.

The only other “gripe” is almost not a gripe at all so much as an unfortunate fact – I don’t speak Portuguese. As such, I’m sure that I often missed some of the humor conveyed through certain characters’ choices of words or tones. Usually, the greatest gangster films feature outstanding dialogue. The Godfather, Goodfellas, Miller’s Crossing, and even the classic White Heat all have some of the most memorable give-and-take exchanges in film history. When a film isn’t in a language I understand, I always feel like I miss out on a little something.


Subtitles are fine and good, and the tranlations for City of God seem to be excellent, conveying plenty of the humor and intensity. Still, there's never any beating being able to understand the original language.

Just one caveat to those thinking about seeing this movie for the first time – it is quite violent, though not in any gratuitous way. I feel about the violence in this movie the way that I do about any historically-based crime film – it’s actually necessary to show it so that we viewers can see the true, horrifying results of the real-life actions in the film. Still, if you don’t have the stomach for it, you may just want to pass on this one. If, however, such things don’t turn you off of these kinds of films, do yourself and favor and watch it soon.

Upon Further Review (Some additional thoughts after a bit of research)

Interestingly, there doesn’t seem to be a wealth of information about the facts upon which City of God is based. There are a few interesting tidbits, though.

One is that the film is based on the 1997 novel of the same name. The author, Paulo Lins, used his own experiences in the real-life City of God favela and the real gangsters of the time and place to craft the tale. The book is a novel; as such, it takes creative license with some of the facts. Still, many of the people and events are real. This is evidenced by some of the actual news footage that is shown during the closing credits of the film.


Matheus Nacthergaele, portrayer of "Carrot," and the only actor in the film with any known experience. He's great, but the performances by all of the locals are amazing.

It’s interesting to note that aside from the actor who played Carrot, all of the players were complete amateurs. Many of them, in fact, were denizens of either the real City of God or one of the other favelas around Rio. Considering this, it’s amazing that the performances were so organic and natural.

A final disturbing point related to the inspiration for The Runts – the group of pre-pubescent kids who kill Li’l Ze and end the movie by talking through a list of other people who they want to kill. Apparently, this final scene was based on a real group putting together a very real hit list while on the set of the movie. For safety purposes, the film crews decided to dedicate some funds to moving the actors out of City of God. This was to prevent them from being victimized by The Runts, and to give them a better opportunity at life.

That’s a wrap. 101 shows down; 4 to go.

Coming Soon: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)



Little dudes mixing it up with big dudes, who mix it up with some even bigger dudes. All in a dream-world of magic!! And oh yeah – talking trees. That’s pretty cool.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.