Directed by Fernando Meirelles
Screenplay by Braulio Mantovani, based on the novel
by Paulo Lins
Produced by Andrea Barata Ribeiro and Mauricio Andrade Ramos
Starring Matheus Nachtergaele, Seu Jorge, Alexandre Rodrigues,
Firmino da Hora, Phelipe Haagensen and Johnathan Haagensen
In Portuguese with English subtitles
Opens tomorrow at the Tower
During the end credits of “City of God,” we see archival
footage of a TV news interview with a person who is portrayed in the
film and it looks almost exactly like the interview that the character
gave in the film. It’s here that the horror evoked throughout
the film resurfaces and becomes even more shocking—all this insane
violence more or less happened.
The film is a masterwork of Brazilian cinema that captures the street
lives of boys and young men living in a housing project on the skirts
of Rio de Janeiro. That the film is based on a well researched novel
makes the evil of many of the film’s child characters all the
Director Fernando Meirelles employs a wide cinematic vocabulary, taking
cues from the likes of “GoodFellas” and the cinematic effects
from “The Matrix,” among others.
He also uses a number of structural tricks that have become popular
in recent years, but are rarely so effective. The story weaves through
time, flashing back to reveal details from different perspectives of
an event. At certain moments, the picture freezes as the narrator looks
at characters who will become important later or ponders a missed opportunity
to kill a brutal criminal.
The narrator is Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), who witnesses the neighborhood’s
violence as he comes of age. He’s not a criminal himself, however.
The one time that he flirts with crime—after his boss unjustly
fires him from a lame job—he makes the mistake of getting to know
the people he plans to rob and realizes that they’re “just
The movie opens with a noise orchestra of the city’s sounds until
impending violence disturbs the scene and Rocket is found in between
a gang of street thugs and an army of police officers. Then it flashes
back to Rocket’s childhood, when his brother had formed a crime
trio with two friends.
The introduction gives us the sense that we’re in the hands of
an assured, energetic director and Meirelles proves this again and again
throughout the film. The style is almost dizzying, presenting the reality
of violence while reaching an exuberant level of camera trickery and
The camera is at once hand-held to capture the rawness of the street
and able to put an expressionistic angle on things with fluid movement
and excellent editing.
With Rocket as an independent observer, the film reveals many details,
showing police corruption and other elements that allow the gangs to
thrive. It also makes some droll observations. For example, once a gang
leader kills off all his possible competition, the streets are safer
for civilians because there are no street fights. Also, he forbids robbing
local businesses, favoring jumping oil trucks instead.
At the same time, he’s a brutal man who prefers resorting to violence
over controlling his temper. It’s partly through luck that anyone
survives the city without offending him.
Fairly soon, we see violence begetting more violence, and the good become
bad. Titles announce different people’s stories as they rise to
At the end, we reflect on how easily anyone could become a casualty
of the street fights. Growing up in the projects is an accomplishment
of itself. Early in the film, a virtuoso shot follows a ricocheting
bullet as it heads toward a character’s reflection and breaks
a car’s rear-view mirror. It could have just as easily been the
The more the film is remembered and considered, the more remarkable
it becomes. The film’s very real characters must decide whether
violence surrounds them or if they will join in. Whichever decision
they make, it’s not easy to survive.