City Of God (Cidade De Deus) (18)

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The ViewLondon Review

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Review byMatthew Turner06/01/2003

Five out of Five stars
Running time: 128 mins

Meirelles’ astonishing film is the Brazilian Goodfellas, an exhilarating, shocking, breathtakingly brilliant, hyper-kinetic roller-coaster ride – if you see a better movie than this all year you’ll be very lucky indeed.

Given that Amores Perros was routinely referred to as ‘the Mexican Pulp Fiction’, it might seem a little disingenuous to refer to City of God as ‘the Brazilian Goodfellas’.

However, the comparison is an apt one, as Scorsese’s gangster epic permeates every frame of Meirelles’ breath-taking film in terms of both style and substance. Both films, for example, are based on real-life accounts – here the source is Paulo Lins’ eyewitness account of a bloody gang war that took place on the streets of Brazil’s most notorious favela (slum city), the ironically named Cidade de Deus, or City of God.

Cuts, Cleavers And Chickens

The terrific opening scene sets the pace for the entire film. A series of rapid cuts shows a man sharpening an enormous cleaver and preparing to slaughter a chicken. The chicken looks on in fear for a few moments before deciding, quite rightly, to make a run for it.

There follows a breakneck chase through the streets, mostly shot at the chicken’s level, in which a group of gangsters pursue their dinner. Eventually the chicken runs straight into the path of the film’s narrator, would-be photographer Rocket (Alexandre Rodriguez). Seconds later, the gangsters show up, but then the police arrive and guns are drawn for a shoot-out, with Rocket caught in the middle.

At this point, Rocket’s episodic, flashback narration begins - he takes us back to the 1960s, introduces us (again, in a style that recalls Goodfellas) to a few of the film’s main characters and begins to tell the first of many stories. Chief among these is the story of L’il Dice, a purely evil child who will one day grow up into the film’s main gangster, L’il Ze Pequeno (Leandro Firmino de Hora).

Astonishing Performances

The performances are astonishing. Amazingly, each and every one of the child actors was plucked from the favelas – Meirelles and co-director Katia Lund worked for eight months prior to shooting, creating the various episodes through a series of improvisational workshops. The results are incredible – one harrowing, brilliantly acted scene in particular involves a rising group of vicious child gangsters, who give one of their even younger victims the choice of being shot “in the hand or in the foot”…

Make no mistake, then, the film is incredibly violent and presents some shocking imagery – we’re really not used to seeing children wielding guns as brutal killers and this film really hammers that home. However, all of the violence is justified in the context of the story - indeed, at least one potentially exploitative scene occurs off screen, although this act in itself leads to the gang war that provides the film’s climax.

This isn’t to say, however, that the filmmakers in any way shy away from incorporating the violence into the film’s extensive array of breath-takingly stylistic technical sequences – one superb scene uses a sort of fast-forwarding effect coupled with high-angle photography to show the assassination campaign of the up-and-coming child gangsters. Similarly, L’il Dice’s first killing spree (in a brothel after he’d been made to wait outside during the actual robbery) is a riveting, yet horrifying piece of cinema.

Innovative Camera Use

Other techniques also add considerably to the kinetic pace of the film – for example, we see a speeded-up history of an apartment that’s used as a drug base, or a violent confrontation that explodes under the strobe-effects of a nightclub.

Interestingly, at the end of the film, we’re shown documentary footage of an event we have previously seen dramatised, which serves to emphasise that the events of the film actually took place. (Having said that, allowances must be made for dramatic licence – many of the characters, for example, have been condensed from the 400 or so characters in the book).

As the opening chicken scene illustrates, the film isn’t entirely without humour, though most of this occurs in the sequences involving Rocket himself, such as in the gentle sequence where he loses his virginity. The inter-titles are also slightly tongue-in-cheek – some two hours into the film, we finally loop back around to the chicken sequence and a title reminds us ‘The Beginning of the Film’.

To sum up, this is a fast-paced, brilliantly made, terrifically exciting film. The level of violence means that it won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but this is bravura filmmaking and deserves to be seen by as wide an audience as possible. Highly recommended.

Film Trailer

City Of God (Cidade De Deus) (18)
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Content updated: 18/10/2017 00:57

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