Pros: Gritty realism, strong acting, and impressive inter - woven narratives.
Cons: Subtitled so may put some viewers off.
Brazil is a country in which the reality is that every year 20 000 people die of violent crime. Bearing this in mind, Fernando Meirelles 'City of God' is a film with intense social realism in which the 'true' story if you will of life in Brazil's most notorious favela (slum) is presented. The main characters for this film are those of the character who provides the omniscient voiceover narrative role of Rocket, played by Alexandre Rodrigues, and that of L'il Dice (Douglas Silva) who later in the film becomes L'il Ze (Leandro Firmino) as he gets older.
In the favela, people often have to resort to crime in the form of violence and drugs in order to try and get out of the favela and make a proper life for themselves. This film is one which presents this idea, with Meirelles showing that it is no easy task to make a life for yourself away from the crime of the favela. This film presents two extremely different protagonists that in many respects can be seen to be binary oppositions. While Rocket presents all that is good in the film - trying to make a life for himself by getting a good education and becoming a professional photographer, L'il Ze represents the life of crime as since being a young boy he has been very much involved in the life of a 'hood.' As L'il Dice we see him shoot Rocket's older brother dead when he tries to take the money off of him that he feels belongs to him. When he does this we are shown a freeze frame of him with a smile on his face which suggests his evil nature.
In the opening sequences of this film it can be seen that both characters possess something which they shoot with - L'il Ze with his gun, and Rocket with his camera. The differences in the way they shoot can be seen in that Rocket's method of 'shooting' is for artistic merit, while L'il Ze's is a way of causing damage and death. This very clearly sets the film up as one of good against evil I feel as Rocket seems to personify good, while L'il Ze personifies evil. Meirelles seems to have considered this in the way that he presents these two characters as while it can be seen that Rocket is an attractive young individual, L'il Ze's look is a far more menacing and unattractive look. I feel that in this film, Meirelles quickly sets up expectations about the two characters which he follows through for the duration of the film.
This film actually begins at the beginning of the final scene of the film, however from this 'Beginning of the end' sequence, we move back in time and start to progress through the films multiple narratives and are shown the lives of a number of characters within the film. I feel that other than the obvious characters of L'il Ze and narrator Rocket, another important character to consider in this film is that of Knockout Ned. Knockout Ned is a friendly bus driver and when Rocket is on the bus with his friend, he is told by Knockout Ned to make sure that he gets his education so that he can move out of the favela and make something of his life like he has. This is ironic, as later in the film Ned's girlfriend is raped by L'il Ze, and he joins the rival gang run by character Carrot in order to exhibit his revenge, turning to a life of crime in the process. The fact that Knockout Ned tells Rocket not to resort to a life of crime is important as this is one of the three instances in which Rocket and his friend are planning to commit crime. Rocket has his brothers unloaded old gun in his pocket and he and his friend are planning to commit robberies, however on three occasions they fail to do so, conceding that the person they were going to do it to 'was just too cool.' They never seem likely to go ahead with the crime as they never seem at all threatening and this is what again contrasts the character of Rocket with that of L'il Ze as while L'il Ze is extremely violent, Rocket is not at all and is an extremely calm and caring character.
Meirelles shows in the film just how difficult it is for the characters to get out of the favela. Although Rocket manages to in the end, it is only as a result of taking pictures of the violence which is present within the City of God, and is not through a skill which he has learnt through education, but instead one that he has developed throughout his years in the favela. Also, when one of the Tender Trio tries to flee the favela with his girlfriend, he is promptly shot dead on his journey out and although his girlfriend drives into the distance, it is without her hood boyfriend who is left dead as the taxi pulls away with her in tears. Also, when Benny tries to leave - he is also killed, albeit not intentionally. While dancing at his farewell party, Blacky tries to shoot L'il Ze, however he misses and this results in the death of Benny - in Rocket's own words 'the coolest hood there was.' This shows that Meirelles is aware of the problems people have in getting out of these sorts of lifestyles as criminals and he seems sympathetic towards people in this position.
This film presents the cycle of life that is present in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, where at the end of the film the character that has been the most feared person in the City of God for a considerable number of years, this being L'il Ze, is shot dead by the young group of hoods that call themselves 'The Runts.' This is a group of children that see violence as the norm as they have never seen anything different. They have been brought up with violence all their lives so see this lifestyle as the only life choice that they can make, they see no way out of this role as criminals as is presented by Meirelles. When they have L'il Ze killed, they begin talking about what they are going to do next, with one of them saying that they should go into drug dealing as 'that's where the big money is to be made.' Meirelles is here presenting an idea of young children that are after a quick fix to their problems of poverty, and see drug dealing as an easy way of making money and overcoming their poor backgrounds.
What makes Fernando Meirelles 'City of God' so great is that although the acting is outstanding, the people he has used in this film were unknown entities before the film was produced. The characters are all played by young people from the real slums of Rio de Janeiro and this just makes the film even more astonishing. The acting is intense, portraying an unfettered real life idea of life in the favela and just how painful it is for the people that live there - subjected to a lifetime of depravity. The MTV style fast paced editing technique which is used here, coupled with the films brilliant acting make this film a must see feature. It won the Empire Critics No.1 Movie of 2003 and fully deserved it as it truly is a brilliant piece of film production on the behalf of Meirelles. A hand held camera is used for this film, giving it a documentary feel - adding to the realism of the film as due to this style we have come to expect a true representation of life in the favelas of Rio de Jeaneiro.
This is a violent film, cleverly presented by Meirelles in order to make the film not just an unintelligent gunfest, but instead a compelling film that will have you hooked from start to finish. There is no denying the talent of Meirelles, and in this film he really shows just how brilliant a director he really is. If you haven't seen this film yet then I suggest you do so and soon as it would be a shame for you to miss such a fantastic film of true directing excellence. Everything comes together perfectly here in possibly one of the best films we will see released this decade. It is a film which will require you full attention due to the subtitles, however if you pay attention and take in what is being said here then you will almost certainly love this film.