Review: City of God

The calculated vigor and brutalism should appeal to anyone who hates reading subtitles.

City of God
Photo: Miramax Films

Over one million Rio de Janeiro residents live in favelas (or slums) devastated by drug trafficking and class warfare. In City of God, director Fernando Meirelles recounts the true story of two children who grew up in the favelas of the ’60s and how one turned to violence and another turned to photography during the disco ’70s. According to the young Rocket, “We were far from the picture-perfect postcard image of Rio de Janeiro.”

This MTV-style spectacle has the style and urgency of Amores Perros but none of its moral ambiguities; every other line of Rocket’s more or less throwaway voiceover makes gratuitous reference to the holiness and irony of the film’s title and everyone’s not-so-divine function as god, devil, or angel of vengeance. It’s only when Meirelles chooses to focus on the rival Li’l Zé (Leandro Firmino da Hora) and Knockout Ned’s (Seu Jorge) ironic relationship to the police and media does the film transcend the feeling of its artistry existing only for its own sake.

Still, Meirelles’s storytelling is remarkable, as is the jittery lyricism with which he connects the film’s many narratives and characters. Tarantino’s influence is all over City of God, though the effortless grace with which the entire film is assembled more accurately brings to mind Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. Even if the film packs the overall resonance of Casino, it’s still never lacking in excitement. The calculated vigor and brutalism should appeal to anyone who hates reading subtitles, and as such Miramax may have a crossover hit on its hands.

 Cast: Matheus Nachtergaele, Seu Jorge, Alexandre Rodrigues, Leandro Firmino de Hora, Phellipe Haagensen, Jonathan Haagensen, Gero Camilo, Renato de Souza, Karina Falcão, Graziela Moretto, Roberta Rodriquez Silvia, Douglas Silva  Director: Fernando Meirelles  Screenwriter: Bráulio Mantovani  Distributor: Miramax Films  Running Time: 130 min  Rating: R  Year: 2002  Buy: Video, Soundtrack

Ed Gonzalez

Ed Gonzalez is the co-founder of Slant Magazine. His writing has also appeared in The Village Voice and The Los Angeles Times. He’s a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, the Critics Choice Association, and the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association.

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