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City of God Review

By Joe Lozito

"City" Sicker


"City of God" is one of those independent films shot with shaky handheld on grainy filmstock with unknown actors in such a way that you're unsure of your watching a documentary or fiction. Since this story of gang violence in a Brazilian ghetto is based on a true story, the line is blurred even further.

Adapted by Braulio Mantovani from the novel by Paulo Lins, "City" is almost Altman-esque as it interweaves the stories of many characters all of whom have targets painted on them. Like Altman's "Nashville", the city itself is a character in the film, with its broken housing, dirt parks and rampant crime. It's as if these people are born and then handed weapons.

Director Fernando Meirelles creates an aura of fear unlike any film in recent memory. If you took any one moment from the opening twenty minutes of "Saving Private Ryan" and extended it for two hours, you'd have this movie. It's as if anyone could get picked off by a bullet at any time; no one's safe. The city is never safe - it's just that sometimes it's less dangerous. Mr. Mantovani's script shows the violence from so many different points of view, the audience not only sympathizes with the victims, but also comes to understand each character as they resort to the only solution at their disposal: crime. If Mr. Mantovani's script falters at all, it is in that it shows almost no scenes of family life. It is possible that these characters are from such broken homes that family was never a factor in their lives. But at the movie stands right now, the characters just pop up already walking and talking - though in most cases illiterate. This criticism, however, takes no power away from a film that packs so many rich characters and stories into its two-hour plus running time.

Again and again, characters are forced to seek revenge - some succeed, many do not - and turn to a life of crime against their better judgment. For some, like Ze Pequeno (Leandro Firmino da Hora) who runs the gangs in the city like a mad bulldog, it is the only life he ever wanted. His story is one of the most interesting in its frankness. Ze is the worst kind of loose cannon, one with access to a lot of firearms.

The actors are wonderful across the board and the direction is brutally honest. Unlike the recent French import "Irreversible" which claimed to show a frank view of rape and its aftermath, the violence in "City of God" is never exploitative (and there are plenty of chances for it to be). Mr. Meirelles understands that the imagination can evoke much more fear than anything displayed in all its gore on screen. "City of God" is a movie whose events will stay with you for a long time.

What did you think?

Movie title City of God
Release year 2003
MPAA Rating R
Our rating
Summary Billed, and rightly so, as a Brazilian 'Goodfellas,', this harrowing look at gang warfare in a small ghetto outside of Rio de Janeiro is fearlessly brutal and honest.
View all articles by Joe Lozito
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