The Greatest films of all time: 87. City of God (2002) (Brazil)


While cinema in Hollywood and the western countries falls at a non-imaginable speed, the global cinema in other countries such as Mexico, Iran, China and Brazil rises. “City of God” in a big surprise comes out of Brazil, a country that had never released a major feature film. This time and this film is not about poverty, children and war torn lands, but about all of these and more. Ironically the city of God is not a religious city running by God or his representatives, but it is a slum outskirt of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, far away from the postal card beauty of its beaches. In the city of God, poverty, guns, violence and drug lords and ruthless gangs rule. In the city of God worse than the war torn lands of Africa and middle east, the children are armed and dangerous, so “If you run the beast catches you, if you stay the beast eats you”.

Directed by Fernando Meirelles who started filmmaking in late 80s with not much success internationally, City of God brought global attention to him so that three years later in 2005 was hired by producers in England, US and Germany to make “The Constant Gardner” with a full English and American cast. The film’s opening symbolically and at the same time realistically introduces the City of God to the audience by showing a large blade is sharpened on a stone to slain chickens. The frightened look of a chicken witnessing the slain of his fellow chickens and being dipped in hot water is smartly amazing. The scared chicken manages to escape and a bunch of boys carrying guns in their hands chase to catch the her on the streets. The boys start shooting at the poor chicken and ask the passer byes to catch her with no reservation to shoot at whoever does not obey their demand. The chicken finally stops between the gang and a young normal boy, Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues) while all the guns are aimed at him to catch the chicken or will be shot at. Rocket then starts narrating the story of his neighborhood and that his family like many others escaped the expensive Rio to live there in peace.

City of God: Ruled by Devil:

The film flashes back to how things started with the “Tender Tri”, three petit thieves, Shaggy (Jonathan Haagensen), Clipper (Jefechander Suplino), and Rocket’s older brother, Goose (Renato de Souza) robbing trucks and share the money with the community who, in turn, hid them from the police. A young boy, Li’l Dice (Douglas Silva) who tries to be part of the gang and smarter than the trio, convinces them to hold up a motel and rob its occupants that earn them more money than robbing trucks. While the trio plans not to kill anyone but rob the occupants, Li’l Dice who lies that the police is coming and forcing them to flee in a stolen car, goes in the motel after they leave and massacre everyone even the employees of the motel ruthlessly. The gang split, Shaggy runs away home and Goose and Clipper hides in the woods. Two detectives who follow them into the woods, one suggests to the other to keep the stolen money for themselves when they arrest the gang. Here the film shows both sides being, but one on the law side and the others outlaws.

The massacre changes the trio’s lives, Clipper scared of the police decides to leave the gang life and joins the church, Shaggy is shot by the police while trying to escape and Goose is shot by Li’l Dice after taking his money. The day Shaggy died and while on the ground his picture was taken by the reporters, Rocket for the first time sees a camera and decides to buy one and starting photography. One day on the beach with his friends, taking photos, his eyes fall on the beautiful Angelica (Alice Braga) and falls in love with her. The beautiful camera shots with angles, close ups and panoramic. To please Angelica, Rocket would do anything and go anywhere including going to the drug dealers and get her some.

Entering the apartment of the drug dealer, Blacky (Leandro Firmino da Hora) to buy Angelica some coke, Rocket tells the story of the apartment where was a base of drug trafficking in the city of God. Dona Zelica when her husband, a drug dealer dies runs the business herself to feed her children and employs the neighborhood kids. Soon the best of these delaer kids, Carrot (Matheus Nachtergaele) takes over the operation and later on finds the place ill fated, he passes it on to Blacky. Then Li’l Dice who has been popular as ruthless robber and killer and extensively frightened, by encouragement of his friend Benny ((Phellipe Haagensen) that drugs are more profitable kills Blacky and takes over hhis business and calls himself Lil’ Z. Here the film flashes back in narration, showing how Lil’ Z startedas a young boy with the shooting massacre of the motel years back. He narrates that he killed everyone in the motel even the employees just for fun as he thought his pals had all the fun of the robbery and he had none. He was thrilled by the killing one by one that the film shows graphically. Rocekt, the narrator tells that he fled the city of God to avoid punishment and started working hard for his money and quit misconduct for a while, but as “A hood doesn’t stop, hood takes a break”, when one day Shaggy finds him and takes his earned money, he shoots and kills him and gets back to his killings then drug business. By age 18 Lil’ Z becomes the most popular, respected and feared of hood around, even in Rio.

 Lil’ Z after killing Rocket’s brother, Shaggy let him, the narrator of the story lives. Rocket then narrates how Lil’ Z’s drug mainly cocaine business boomed by employing all the neighborhood kids as dealers and distributors who were the best on the watch over for the police interceptions. The narrator explains how the drug trafficking is like any other business with a hierarchy, from the lookouts or runts who were younger children, to dealers, managers, bosses and on the top Lil’ Z who did not have any rivals anymore and was paying the police’s shares as well so there wouldn’t be anymore shootings and killings in the city of God. Along with the narration, the film visually shows well shot by shot how things were developing graphically.

Then Rocket tells his own love story of falling in love with Angelica after leaving his boyfriend, Thiago who gets hooked up on the coke after the breakup. But Benny who had changed to be a “playboy” steals the heart of Angelica from Rocket. Meanwhile runts or little kids start robbing the stores that when Lil’ Z finds out, confronts a bunch of them, corners three of them with his gang, asks them where they want to be shot at and shoots at the feet of two young boys. He then hands his gun to the third one to pick one of the two to kill, that he shoots and kills one. Lil’ Z lets the one remaining but bullet in the foot to go back to his home and let everyone knows that no one robs Lil’ Z’s ghetto.

Rocket who has been different than the rest of the kids in the city of God, to make an earning, starts working in a supermarket, but one day when a few runts get in and steal a few things, he gets fired as he was suspected to be an associate by the store manager and did not get paid a cent. Then Rocket desperate with his path of honest living, decides to use his brother, Shaggy’s gun that he had saved to rob somewhere to make some money. With his friend riding a bus, first thought of robbing the bus ticket man, but the man was too nice and let them off for free ride and advised them to get educated and leave the city of God. Across the bus stop, there was a bakery that the two went in to rob, but the girl at the counter was also nice and gave him her phone number to call, so he couldn’t dare to pull his gun at her and rob the place.

Angelica now in love with Benny asks him to leave the city of God and buy a farm and live in peace away from all the killing and drug business. Benny falls in with his girlfriend’s idea and throws goodbye parties for the whole city and its different groups even the religious ones. He tells Lil’ Z and also advises him that he needs a girl in his life as well. In one of Benny’s goodbye party, Lil’ Z who has never had a girlfriend and danced before in his life, asks a girl to dance with him, but gets rejected as she was with her boyfriend. Lil’ Z rejected and angry at the gun point forces the boyfriend to strip and shows his ass to the crowd at the night club. Meanwhile Blacky comes in to kill Lil’ Z, but in the dark misses his target and shoots and kills Benny who was standing beside him.

Lil’ Z screams and cries in the grief of the loss of his best friend asks Angelica to disappear as he perceives it all as her fault. He leaves the club and runs into a handsome boy, known as Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge) walking with his girlfriend and steals her from him at the gun point and rapes her. Lil’ Z then goes back to Knockout Ned with his gang to kill him, but his young brother who comes out is killed after he stabs Lil’ Z. Knockout Ned in revenge of the life of his brother and reinstate his honor of his girlfriend, goes to kill Lil’ Z, but shoots and kills one of his guys. Then he goes to Carrot who is still active in drug business for support, but he is conditioned if he joins his gang that he reluctantly accept on the condition of not killing innocent people.

The partnership of Knockout Ned with Carrot goes beyond the drug business to holdups, first a gun store to acquire more guns then banks and else. The promise of no killings finds one exception when during one of the robberies, a bank employee who tried to pull out a gun at the gang gets shot by Carrot. Then in another holdup, Knockout Ned had to shoot and kill a guard who reached for his revolver so the exception became the rule and necessary. Now the Knockout Ned and Carrot’s gang had become more armed than Lil’ Z’s gang and equipped with all kinds of ammunition including automatic rifles. Finally the war breaks out between the two gangs and the ghetto that was a purgatory became a hell, and a sweet revenge turns to an all-out-war. Rocket meanwhile started working in delivery of the local newspaper and gets close to the photographer of the paper who when found Rocket’s interest in photography, he introduces him to the chief editor.

The city of God gradually was divided into two sections run by the two rival gangs. This over time becomes an excuse for every kid and youngsters to join one or the other, sometimes for revenge from someone or just for fun and power. Like Vietnam, the ghetto was covered with dead bodies everywhere, so that attracts the attention of the media including the local paper that publishes some articles and pictures of the situation. Knockout Ned after finding a young boy, Steak (Darian Cunha) on their side being killed by Lil’ Z’s gang, volunteers for interview by the newspaper and claims while he has been arrested and jailed before, Lil’ Z has not been touched yet for all his crimes. His published photo in the paper angers Lil’ Z who wants to show everyone and the media who’s the real boss. He with his gang ask Rocket to take their pictures while being armed to the teeth for show off. Rocket drops off the film roll to the for development at the newspaper’s office, that in his absence draw the attention of a female editor who thought to be from their own photographer and publishes it on the first page the very next day. Rocket seeing the photo while delivering the papers, gets frightened that he would be killed by Lil’ Z’s gang when they see their pictures in the paper. To his surprise Rocket’s picture is liked by all including the publisher who offers him more money for more pictures and a new fancy camera. He is also liked by the female editor who published his photo to her apartment, so Rocket having his first sexual experience.

The next day, the film goes back to “the beginning of the end” as its title reads on the screen. Lil’ Z hands in guns to a bunch of young kids to be on his side against Carrot’s gang and offers them free chicken to eat that the film goes back to the opening scene, while showing a sharpening knife slaughtering the chickens then they are dipped in the hot water and when a scared chicken runs away, and stops by the feet of Rocket with his new camera hanging on his neck. At this point the film shows the rest of the end of the film that a few policemen appear in front of Lil’ Z’s gang but since the gang are outnumbered, they leave. While Lil’ Z asking Rocket to take his gang’s picture, a shot is heard and one of the gang boy shown being shot in the chest and falls on the ground. Here an all-out shooting and killings commence with an ending of many dead bodies all around and those who are alive arrested by the police. Finally when one imagines all have ended, the next scene shows a bunch of very young kids who are still armed taking over and declaring that the city of God is all theirs now.

City of God received world-wide acclaim and nominated for the best foreign language film, best cinematography, screenplay, editing and , direction by the Academy Awards. The film was also a success in its own country, Brazil where Meirelles and Lund created a similar “City of Men” TV series in the same setting of the city of God. He film also drew the largest audience of over 3 million in 2003 of any domestic film and sold over $ 10 million. One of the 100 greatest films of all time by TIME magazine, “50 Films to see before you die” by Film 4, ranked 7 by Empire magazine of the best films of world cinema, number 6 by The Guardian on its list of “the 25 best action movies ever’, the film was hailed as “breathtaking and terrifying” and its director was recognized of having great gifts and passions. The film also on the list of top ten best films of 2003 ranked 2nd in Chicago Sun Times by Roger Ebert, and Chicago Tribune, 4th on New York Post and Time Magazine,, 7th on Chicago Tribune, and 10th on the Hollywood Reporter and The New York Times. With its timely script by Braulio Mantovani, based on the “City of God” by Paulo Lins, superb cast, music score of Antonio Pinto, editing of Daniel Rezendo and undoubtedly the eye catching cinematography of Cesar Charlone and above all with the great direction of Fernando Meirelles and his associate Katia Lund, the City of God is a film to be remembered for long time to come.    


In closing remarks “City of God” one more time will be redefined based on the following criteria:  

  1. Originality: The originality of “City of God” above all is in being the first crime film run by youngsters that frightens not the viewers on the screen for a couple of hours but scares us all if such a situation existed in Brazil or exists anywhere in the world that we have witnessed in the media to be so in quite few places in our world.
  2. Technicality: The technicality of “City of God” is in its script, direction, location and set design, cinematography, editing and the superb cast performance. The film is one of the very few in the history of cinema to be thrilling and fit in place despite it narrative format that could often be redundant and boring.
  3. Impact Factor: The influence of “City of God” has been in its own country Brazil that followed by the TV series of “City of Men” and on the global cinema to depict similar stories or facts existing in the rest of the world on the screen.
  4. Survival: “City of God” has survived well to this day for its terrifying and eye-opening depiction of bitter reality of some places on this earth. The film’s powerful cinematic presentation has survived since its release and will survive for many years to come without losing any of its horrifying impact. 

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