I hesitate to make the statement “I don’t think we’ll ever see a gangster movie with the scope of Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund’s Brazilian true crime film City of God” only because more than half a decade later the Italian film Gomorrah has nearly evaporated from my memory. I can’t reliably claim if Matteo Garrone’s film, a mosaic narrative, has as much focus on the area of the Campania as it does on the Camorra itself. So barring that blind spot, I will say Meirelles and Lund’s film, in all of its interest towards the Cidade de Deus favela and how its conditions are and how it leads to the criminal hoods, might be unmatched in scope by most gangster movies. It certainly not the all-around best gangster movie I’ve seen but it’s up there amongst the most ambitious and the epic aspect of Baulio Mantovani’s screenplay (based on the semi-autobiography by Paulo Lins) with Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather duology (what is this third film you speak of?), and Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas. And I think City of God aims a lot wider in its focus on the entirety of the Cidade de Deus favela’s history. If there’s any work similar to City of God in my eyes, it’s not a movie but a TV series – David Simon’s The Wire is the only possible match in its focus on Baltimore as a city as City of God on Cidade de Deus and their respective histories.
Go even further, even if Gomorrah pulls off that level of detailed city overview, I doubt it does it as energetically as City of God does. At the level of Scorsese’s Goodfellas, Meirelles and Lund have a lot to say in a little over two hours and so much to cover and so City of God begins with a sequence in the 1980s that is intended to rattle the viewer into confusion and get them excited as Buscape (Alexandre Rodrigues) chases after a chicken and ends up face to face with the most feared and violent hood leader Li’l Ze (Leandro Firmino da Hora) and his gang, who we had just shortly learned Buscape is in fear of being killed by. All of this chopped together with frenzy by Daniel Rezende that makes it look like Baz Luhrmann ghetto picture until the moment we start spinning around to get us ready for the speed in which Meirelles and Lund will have to give us narrative information and when the frame lands it’s not the tall halfway buildings with a modern blue to them, but small huts in a yellow baked landscape in the 1960s with the fuzziness of an old memory (and this is a pretty hot and sweaty picture overall thanks to cinematographer Cesare Charlone).
And that’s where we discover this isn’t Buscape’s story (played as a child by Luis Otavio) but the story of the city he lived in and the crime all around him and this is a story with so many threads that it’s a miracle the movie doesn’t lose track of them all. It starts out simple with the focus on Buscape’s idolization of his brother Marreco (Renato de Souza) and his Tender Trio gang with Cabeleira (Jonathan Haagensen) and Alicate (Jefechander Suplino), functioning Robin Hood and Merry Men for the Cidade de Deus that ends with their tragic fracturing due to their robbery of a wealthy motel occurring the same night as a ghastly massacre. And from there, we get introduced to other potential gang branches like the Runts, a group of extremely young boys engaged in robbery that look like they’re playing tag compared to the actions of Li’l Dice (Douglas Silva), a tagalong to the Tender Trio that would grow up to become Ze and so one of the threads comes full circle. But then there’s how Carrot (Matheus Nachtergaale) rises up from being a small-time drug dealer and Ze’s best friend Benny’s (Phellipe Haagensen, Jonathan’s brother) considerable amiability as a local gangster celebrity and he’s consideration of leaving with his girlfriend Angelica (Alice Braga) and how the beloved veteran Chicken Manny* (Seu Jorge) got pushed into joining an impending gang war between Carrot and Ze.
These are all condensed through the perspective of Buscape’s interest in becoming a photojournalist (which also explains how enamored Buscape becomes with the hood life and how it obviously provides an escape from the low economy and living quality of the favela, as well as the sensational manner of the brutal violence when it occurs) and the details are so varied and impactful that it feels like the speed in which we’re witnessing all of it going on is a result of the pressure and density of the screenplay. The movie literally stops in its tracks to provide a crossfade one-angle short film about the history of a drug den apartment with efficiency and a real tangible sense of time-passing that before no time, we’re right back where we were in another story we were watching about Ze distinguishes himself from the desperation of the favela with the savagery of his wrath and violence. Or how Benny becomes the life of his going away party and a little travelogue of all the different cliques he interacts with amicably. Or how a recently deceased character planned his revenge for his father’s death, a daring storytelling decision done in the middle of the film’s climax and yet paced so well that we don’t even lose any of the energy of the gun battle it was interrupting. And in the meantime, the whole community is physically evolving in the background as part of the greater city of Rio de Janeiro that we barely notice the Cidade de Deus we leave at the end of the picture is not the same one we were watching at the beginning.
This could feel exploitative, but the presence of a whole cast of Cidade de Deus residents (all of them distinctive enough that it’s kind of disappointing only Jorge and Braga ever had a real international career) instead makes it feel like the city has come to life to tell its story and the story is honestly an angry one. Halfway through the movie, the violence that had mostly felt like throwaway exposition (with some exceptions like the opening motel robbery turned massacre, which feels like a thesis scene in some ways) of background figures, becomes grave and alarming and surrounding. And then from there only more threads expand onto its political implications – Buscape has to go through these hoops just to make money for a camera, the church is the only refuge Alicate finds from the bloodthirsty police, etc. – and City of God ends up having a lot more to say than “this is life in the favela”, but why it’s hard and what changes need to made.
Basically City of God is the definition of a dense movie. It’s thematically dense. It’s narratively dense. It’s stylistically dense. And against all odds, it’s carries that weight successfully. It’s a bit unwieldy and flawed and no movie can replace actual experiences and lives in the poverty of the Cidade de Deus favela, but I can’t imagine a viewer of the film being any less conscious or aware of the situation by watching the film and Meirelles and Lund are clearly fans of the techniques of Scorsese, Tarantino, and the French New Wave that make it go down so easy, you don’t realize until afterwards that you were eating your vegetables.
*one of the big problems with reviewing City of God is that many of the names vary between the Brazilian-language and the English-subtitles. I opted to just identify each character by their Brazilian name simply because I think they’re almost unanimously better. This is the sole exception for me, where I prefer the English subtitle’s selection of Knockout Ned for Chicken Manny’s character, though that may be the Anglophone in me.
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