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City of God
2003 - R - 133 Mins.
Director: Fernando Meirelles, Katia Lund
Producer: Walter Salles
Written By: Braulio Mantovani, Fernando Meirelles
Starring: Alexandre Rodrigues, Matheus Nachtergaele, Alice Braga, Seu Jorge
Review by: Harrison Cheung
   

Teenage wasteland Rio-style
One of the big surprises of this year’s Oscar race is the little seen Brazilian film ‘City of God.’ Nominated for 4 Oscars –- including Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and Best Editing -- ‘City of God’ is based on the true story of a young man, nicknamed Rocket, who dreams of becoming a photographer but struggles with the day to day existence in the City of God – an ironically-named government-planned slum just outside Rio de Janeiro.

Fast and furiously shot and reminiscent of Scorcese’s ‘GoodFellas’ in ferocity and Tarantino’s ‘Pulp Fiction’ in construction, ‘City of God’ is an electrifying gangster movie made all the more exotic because of the foreignness of this ‘hood. Rocket tells his story from childhood, when the City of God was constructed in the 1960s to keep the poor in their own neighborhood. With no running water, no electricity, no education and no prospects, packs of feral children roam the dusty slums robbing a passing gas utility truck until one of them, Lil Ze, at the age of 8, figures out that there’s more money in drug dealing than there is in petty crime.

While Lil Ze builds his drug-funded gang and murders his rivals, Rocket stays clear of crime life, thanks in part to his own brother’s murder at the hands of Lil Ze. But it isn’t easy escaping the slums of the City of God as Rocket’s life crisscrosses with Lil Ze again and again.

Violent and kinetic, ‘City of God’ is a must-see film. It’s a stunning portrayal of life in the slums and the vicious and heartless savagery of survival as gangs are built, butchered and recombined into morphing street political entities. The cast here, mostly of children and teenagers, are all very good – in fact, they are so earnest that the movie felt more like a documentary. And without resorting to Hollywood-style conventions, filmmakers Katia Lund and Fernando Meirelles still manage to portray these children with great humanity and humor – these kids laugh and love, some grow into horny teens, and some even find their way out of the City of God.

What’s particularly amazing about this film is that it gives North American audiences a street-level glimpse of a Third World slum. The police are inept or uninterested. Its denizens protect their own. And life is very cheap. Just 10 years ago, it was headline news when 4 policemen in Rio de Janeiro were convicted of shooting 70 street children, killing 6. The police were paid by shop owners to rid the neighborhood of the kids as they considered them to be pests! One of the many shocks in this film is during the end credits – this film was based on the true story of Wilson Rodriguez, a photojournalist from the City of God! With actual news footage of the gang wars, it’s an added chill that the artistry of ‘City of God’ was about real people.

Having seen the other nominees for Best Director, it’s a great surprise and delight that an indie film and a foreign film scored its well-deserved nomination. It would be a greater delight still if ‘City of God’ won.
 
Movie Guru Rating
A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic.
  5 out of 5 stars

 
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