May 26: City of God | A Foreign Language Film
In the category of A Foreign Language Film, Max chose City of God (2003), directed by Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, written by Bráulio Mantovani based on a novel by Paulo Lins, and starring Alexandre Rodrigues, Leandro Firmino da Hora, Phellipe Haagensen, Douglas Silva, Jonathan Haagensen, Matheus Nachtergaele, and Seu Jorge.
I’ve long heard great buzz around City of God, but I could never tell what kind of buzz. Movies like Boondock Saints get a ton of cult buzz, but they’re just not my cup of tea. However, after watching City of God, I can safely say that this is my cup of tea.
The story begins in the thick of it — we meet our main character and his primary antagonist. We see the climactic scenario he’s stuck in — guns drawn with the gangs on one side, the cops on the other, himself in the middle. From here Rocket, our protagonist, starts explaining key parts to the story, all the way from the beginning.
As he tells the tale, we’re shown overlapping vignettes explaining key players and how their stories all intersect. It’s a really clever way to world-build the audience into the story, and lets us focus on the big picture while knowing all sorts of nitty gritty details. We know influential older brothers, their friends, and towns people who play big roles in setting off events, even if its just through one simple action.
The plot is focused on Rocket, who doesn’t want to be a hood (gangster) like his brother. However, we also follow the story of the Tender Trio, his brother’s hood squad, as well as some other hoods — like Little Dice/Little Ze. In this sequence, we also see how the principled criminality of the Trio doesn’t mean much once they’re faced with reality — and a more ruthless hood.
So this all enforces that Rocket is different than his brother. He doesn’t want to be a hood. Rocket instead wants to be a photographer, but since he’s poor, he has to work legitimate jobs to eventually buy a camera.
Part of growing up for Rocket is that he wants to lose his virginity and get a girlfriend. He tries to do this throughout the film, which turned out to be a heartfelt storyline because Rocket actually had respect for these girls he talked to, as opposed to some of the hoods we meet. While there are some brutal scenes showing the dangers women faced in this lawlessness, Rocket wasn’t a contributing factor. This is best exemplified when he was respectful and friendly when his unrequited love went for another guy — Rocket not only stayed her friend, he became her boyfriend’s friend, as well.
Rocket ends up being the moral piece of a very amoral story — our other moral characters start that way and either end up dead or corrupted. With every character we meet, we get some kind of arc to accompany them — some tieing back to the previous scene or even earlier. The film is well-acted, with performances that are believable and heartfelt.
Most importantly, a story like this needs to be told in a very Brazilian way. With the favela set pieces, it’s not hard to capture a very distinct look — but the eye-catching cinematography and editing paired with the music creates a very real, living environment that we all feel a part of as the viewer.
I’m not gonna say this film is for everyone — if you’re squeamish with violence or don’t like to see kids acting out criminal acts, skip it. But I think it is a film with a stronger message than, let’s say Boondock Saints, or anything that is edgy for the sake of being edgy. City of God not only lived up to the hype I’ve always heard about it, it far exceeded my expectations. Plus it made me want to break out my camera and go shooting immediately.
Want to keep up with the rest of our scavenger hunt? Check out the rest of our May Movie Challenge here.