A lot of the public perception of Brazil, and Rio De Janeiro in particular, is focused on the vibrancy of the city and country. The spirited and lively nightlife, the balmy, tropical beaches, one of the giants of international soccer, all combined with the dynamic and dazzling wildlife and rainforest. Yet City of God, directed by Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund, reveals a side of Rio and Brazil that isn’t normally shown and it discloses the multitude of layers in Brazilian culture and society. City of God is the story of two children from the slums of Rio as they grow up and take contrasting paths, one as a photographer and the other as a ruthless, violent drug kingpin. At its core however, City of God remains a brilliantly scathing indictment of the Brazilian government and their social policies. City of God portrays the grittiness of the slums and ghettos of Rio in an incredibly realistic, raw, unpolished, and unfiltered manner.
The film is unnerving and unsettling in its casual depiction of the frequent violent injuries and deaths that occur throughout the film. Each death and injury carries emotional weight and depth. Whether it is grief, relief, or discomfort, each violent act elicits some emotional response that is astoundingly palpable. Each scene is powerful and gripping in more ways than one. They grabbed me by the collar and took me through this story and didn’t let go until I profoundly experienced what life is like in the slums of Rio. Despite its subject matter, City of God remains a highly entertaining film- it thrills you and gets you invested in the characters and their outcomes. Its 130-minute runtime breezes by and you’re left wondering what hit you after it’s over. That is due to a couple of factors: the fast-paced, frantic directing and editing of the film as well as the incredible performances by the largely non-actor cast.
The mise-en-scene of the film is staggering. It’s incredibly bold and ambitious but succeeds because it manages to whisk you through years of change and growing up while also inserting you seamlessly into the action. Meirelles and Lund direct in a very naturalistic, jazzy manner. The camera is so up close and personal with the actors ( you can visibly see the beads of sweat on their foreheads) yet it also remains shaky and unstable as it moves in rhythm of the world it inhabits. It creates a heightened sense of naturalism. Everything happens quickly in this world and the rapid, unsteady camera is just trying to keep up with the action as it happens. The remarkable editing of Daniel Rezende contributes to the rapid-fire insanity of the world. The whole film has swift, quick, and dazzling cuts, often to many different angles and viewpoints giving a remarkable vantage point from which to view the action of the story. The edits place you directly in the middle of the story so that it envelops you and strikes you from every angle, but then a cut will pull back and force you to see what has transpired from outside the story, enabling you to reflect on the experience.
There are two main scenes that I found to be truly remarkable. The first is the opening scene of the film. It’s simple, following a group of gang members and hoodlums trying to catch an escaped chicken. Right as they’re about to catch it, the police arrive and a tense standoff begins with one character trapped in the middle before rapidly swirling back to their childhood. Yet, the scene remains exciting, as it intercuts the looks of a worried chicken with the gutting and boiling of a dead one and then the chase after it escapes is thrilling. It cuts quickly to a myriad of different positions and views. It’s just a wonderful opening that captures the fast-paced, high stakes world of the Rio slums and introduces you to the major players and the lives they lead.
The second scene occurs about midway through the film. It’s a sendoff party for one of the characters, fit with strobe lights, music, and a large mass of people dancing. However, what makes this scene interesting is that each blink of the strobe light acts as a cut. The angles and camera distance change, which provide an unprecedented view of the action as it unfolds. The cinematography puts us right in the heat of the moment while still giving necessary distance for the characters. Meirelles and Lund in concert with Rezende do a masterful job of allowing us to experience the dangerous lives the characters live but also at understanding the inner machinations of their minds and what their motivations and goals are. They go beyond simply recreating reality by also providing us with emotional depth of the characters which is also very much due to the actors as well.
The main actors in City of God were all either amateur or non-actors. This helps to achieve a sense of naturalism and truth to the picture, but they also give astonishing and stunning performances providing all the emotional weight for a film concerned with death and a total disregard for life. They do a fantastic job at internalizing all of their experiences, directing them outwards in their chosen life paths, and where they want to eventually go. They make the characters completely believable and you get lost in their performances. As I mentioned earlier, even though violent acts and death occur throughout, each one carries emotional weight given through each performance. They force you to feel each emotion they’re feeling. You get so invested in each character and what happens to them, whether you’re rooting for success or death, they manipulate you into experiencing those emotions. City of God is one of the best recent examples of a film that marries a great script with fantastic acting, audacious directing, and terrific editing. It hints at the public perception of vibrant Brazilian life while showing how a lot of people are forced to live and how social change may be needed. It’s a spectacular Brazilian film and adequately shows two opposite sides of the country.