Directed by: Fernando Meirelles, Katia Lund || Produced by: Andrea Barata Ribeiro, Mauricio Andrade Ramos, Elisa Tolomelli, Walter Salles
Screenplay by: Braulio Mantovani || Starring: Alexandre Rodrigues, Leandro Firmino, Alice Braga, Phellipe Haagensen, Douglas Silva, Jonathan Haagensen, Matheus Nachtergaele, Seu Jorge, Roberta Rodrigues, Graziella Moretto
Music by: Ed Cortes, Antonio Pinto || Cinematography: Cesar Charlone || Editing by: Daniel Rezende || Country: Brazil || Language: Portuguese
Running Time: 130 minutes
If you’re familiar with the hard-hitting violence and unapologetic storytelling of modern crime dramas like The Wire (2002-2008), you’ll be well braced for the potent, drug-riddled atmosphere and tenacious gang battles in Fernando Meirelles’ and Katia Lund’s City of God. Much like David Simon’s critically acclaimed television homage to the city of Baltimore, City of God (CoG) gets down and dirty by immersing its viewers in the grimy, dangerous lifestyles of drug dealers, petty thieves, and mass murderers who compete for both street cred and the almighty dollar in the cramped favelas of Rio de Janeiro. It’s an intense, visceral experience of a movie that draws its power from inventive, energetic camerawork and a wide cast of characters.
CoG starts off with a bang, or rather, a slicing from a carving knife to be used to butcher a chicken for dinner. This abrasive, jarring sound grabs your attention and sets a tone for the rest of the film. This is a movie that is loud, in-your-face, and doesn’t pull any punches.
The directors’ use of frenetic, hyperactive camera movements bring energy to the already bustling vibrancy of the film’s tropical urban setting and criminal backdrop. These cinematographic techniques are compounded with effective narration courtesy of the film’s protagonist, Alexandre Rodrigues, to pack narrative development and a plethora of supporting characters into 130 minutes. Combined with a taught screenplay, CoG covers in 130 minutes what most films would take over three hours to composite. The direction and screenplay are efficient and flesh out multiple story arcs that interweave and build to an action-packed climax. With that said, the camerawork is the star here, as some elements of the cocaine-infused violence become desensitizing over time and some characters are less interesting than others. The frenzied direction, on the other hand, never grows tiring and gives this crime drama a unique style reminiscent of a graphic novel-adaptation.
The only major flaw with CoG is that its main character and narrator is an outsider to most of the action-packed events that occur. He’s a voice of clarification for the audience so that we know what’s going on, and the cinematography is built with this in mind. And yet, we don’t get to know him well, he’s not relatable, and he’s the least interesting figure in the movie. The movie could’ve stood to have removed the physical protagonist altogether and had its narration be a characterless voiceover.
On the other hand, we get to know a vast range of other characters quite well, and many are fascinating. The standout figure is Leandro Firmino da Hora as Lil Ze, a tenacious, bloodthirsty drug lord who rules the alleyways with an aggressive, violent demeanor and no-nonsense attitude toward his business. Lil Ze’s bromantic relationship with his partner in crime, Benny (Phellipe Haagensen) adds another level of depth to his character and to the overall story as well.
Altogether, you could do far worse for crime dramas nowadays than City of God. All the mayhem becomes a bit repetitive after two hours of intense violence, but the film remains a recommendable crime saga given how well it executes exciting gangster drama.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: City of God received an Academy Award nomination for Best Directing and it’s easy to see why. The movie blends dept sound FX with fast, stylized camerawork to create a distinctive tone for the narrative. Together, the cinematography, editing, and adapted screenplay give the film great energy.
— However… the almost constant grind of brutal gang violence becomes numbing after a while. Many characters are forgettable, including the protagonist.
? If you run, the beast catches; if you stay, the beast eats — i.e. damned if you do, damned if you don’t!