By Tihana Mavrovic (Zagreb, Croatia)
Fernando Meirelles’ City of God is a roller-coaster ride through life and death in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, specifically in the suburb of Ciudad de Deus.
The story begins with the introduction of the protagonist and narrator Rocket, a teenager who aspires to become a photographer. He wants to avoid Lil’ Z, a violent local gangster and drug dealer, who acts as the main antagonist. Shortly, he finds himself between the police and Lil’ Z with his gangsters. As the tensions rise, the story flashbacks to the past, when Rocket was still a kid. Colour, interesting camera angles, and a spinning shot move the story from present to past. Bright colours give the movie a cheerful atmosphere at times, even with the street violence and gang-related conflict running throughout the entire movie.
Unlike his older brother and his friends, Rocket never wanted to be a gangster as a child. Even then, street violence and shootouts between police and ‘hoods’ were a daily sight. We also witness how Lil’ Z, back then known as Lil’ Dice started on his path as a violent criminal. During a brothel heist, he kills several innocent people for fun, escaping the hoods with his friend Benny, and living off petty crime. Before this, he also kills Rocket’s brother.
The story continues in the character’s adolescent years, with Bennie and Lil’ Z becoming the main gangsters in Ciudad de Deus. Unlike Lil ‘Z, Bennie is extremely charismatic and helps maintain a good situation in the ‘hood. He keeps Lil’ Z in control, by diverting him from reckless and violent decisions. There’s less violent crime and fewer robberies in general, as the gangsters maintain order while bribing police. At this point, the movie becomes a coming-of-age like story, with light-hearted themes such as first love and friendship lighting up the screen.
As things are going well, a shootout leaves Bennie dead, and Lil’ Z completely unhinged and willing to wage war on other gangsters in the ‘hood. Rocket assumes the role of the gang’s photographer. By accident, photos get published in the papers. This is the reason he is avoiding Lil’ Z at the beginning of the movie. As it turns out, the gangsters love it and let him take more pictures, which in turn lands him a job at the newspaper.
The movie then takes a dark turn, as gang violence increases, involving rape and shooting down a family home. While shocking, the movie creates an exceptional atmosphere as the story heats up. In opposition to Lil’ Z, a group of gangsters led by Knockout Ned try to take back the neighbourhood, as the police won’t intervene. A tragic character who lived a decent life turns to crime for revenge.
In the numerous conflicts between the two groups, the favela becomes hell once more, and it becomes obvious that the only possible result is more bloodshed. In the finale, both Knockout Ned and Lil’ Z perish, while the cycle of violence continues.
While the main themes of the movie are grim and depressing, the movie manages to feel light-hearted at times, and has its happy moments create a realistic view of life in the favellas. Crime and survival blend and mix at points. The colours and camera work to brighten the atmosphere throughout the movie.
City of God was nominated for four Academy Awards, including best director in 2004. It is Meirelles’ most famous work and propelled his career to Hollywood. He made the film more genuine by finding actors from the slums, adding realism to their behaviour. The theme of the movie was adapted from a book by the same name by Paulo Lins. The author was an inhabitant of Ciudad de Deus who escaped and wrote the book loosely based on real-life events.
For anyone who appreciates an interesting, unusual tale, or emotional rollercoaster ride, this film provides it. Gripping and colourful, the film will take you by surprise, make you laugh and even flinch while delivering a life story.