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Is City of God still a worthwhile Brazilian classic?

Malu Rocha reviews the gangster film that has a heart of gold

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Image Credit: Imagem Filmes

A film about child criminals and inescapable poverty portrayed in a pleasurable and honest manner? Fernando Meirelles sets out to do just that; and succeeds. Set in the slums, far from the postcard worthy Rio de Janeiro, City of God is part Scorsese crime Hollywood gangster film, part MTV pop music video. A combination which against all odds, works surprisingly well.

The story is driven by the non-professional cast of characters recruited directly from the slums who deliver extremely raw and honest performances. Even though they come alive through their violent acts, it’s hard not to form a connection with them, as inexplicable or ethically concerning as it may be. After all, these are mostly (pre-pubescent) children just trying to survive a life of crime that they were born into.

We are quickly introduced to Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), our main character and narrator, who walks us through the three ‘generations’ of the City of God. Does his voice-over narration interrupt the fast-paced film? Yes. Do we love it? Oh, yes. The voice of Rocket can be seen as a true manifestation of the sensibility of Paulo Lins, the author of the novel which this movie was based on. His conversational storytelling feels borderline poetic which, amidst a sea of gunshots and gangsters, is a much-needed relief for the audience.

The blend of poetry and graphic violence is further enforced by the cinematography. Even though the film can sometimes feel like an assault to the senses with the never-ending fast cuts and spitfire dialogue, the contrast between the vibrant colours and the sheer violence creates an extremely stylistic effect. Yet at the same time the film feels raw and honest, something you can only say about a handful of films.

The murder scenes are filmed in a strikingly similar manner to the party scenes. And the fact that vibrant colours were chosen to accompany such graphic violence is a really big statement. However, Meirelles doesn’t make a statement just for the sake of making a statement; the film has enough substance to support this stylistic choice, meaning that nothing feels forced.

This pop aesthetics was borrowed from television, advertising and music videos, an industry in which many of the crew members had been involved in for years prior to filming City of God. Through MTV-like aesthetic elements, the juxtaposition of content and form presents an entertaining and borderline amusing picture of urban violence.

All of this shines through in the opening scene. This is a carnivalesque environment, where the focus is intercut between people in a party and chickens being slaughtered, coupled with knives being sharpened and a soft samba music, already suggesting the dualistic nature between entertainment and social criticism. What else could you ask for in the first three and a half minutes of a film?

If such a thing were to exist, City of God could be described (in the words of The Washington Post’s Stephen Hunter) as ‘a joyous film about murder’ because at its core, City of God is a gangster film with a heart of gold.

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