City of God

By Jason Wojciechowski on February 18, 2004 at 6:34 AM

City of God provides a nice contrast to 21 Grams. The Brazilian film, the second movie about street kids in that country I've seen in the past six months, is as flashy with its cinematography and editing as 21 Grams tries to be, but it actually has a purpose.

The story is told by Rocket, an inhabitant of Rio's "City of God," a huge slum where the government likes to send homeless people but not much else. Police presence is minimal, so street gangs rule the environment. Rocket is not a member of one of the gangs himself; he tried to go to school to get himself out of the City, and has always harbored an ambition to be a photographer. We see Rocket grow from about eight, in the sixties, to some indeterminate age some indeterminate number of years in the future. Rocket's story crosses paths with such illustrious gang-land characters as Li'l Dice (later, Li'l Ze, the most vicious and respected hood in the city), Knockout Ned (forced to become Li'l Ze's chief rival), Benny (Ze's right-hand man, "the grooviest hood in the city"), and Carrot (the leader of the rival gang, who helps Ned become a hood to be reckoned with).

City of God doesn't shy away from violence, because, to shamelessly borrow a cliche, it is the way of the streets. Ze forces a new member of his gang, perhaps 12 years old, to choose between killing a six-year old and a ten-year old as his initiation to the upper reaches of the group. The filmmakers strike a balance, though: the gore and blood is not glorified, not hammed up in any way; rather, it is presented matter-of-factly. Children bleed when they're shot, but we don't leer at them as they lay dying.

The film also doesn't shy away from the grainy-style cinematography that has become popular for shooting "street" movies in the last few years, but it is put to good use. We don't just see dirt and filth; we also see joy and pleasure at dance parties and the gorgeous Brazilian beach. Of course, when the guns come out at the parties and the seven-year old hoods gather around at the beach, we're reminded that any escape from the horrors of every-day life is only temporary.

The story is told non-linearly, with much back- and side-tracking performed by Rocket, as any story-teller working without preparation would. We encounter characters we haven't met before, so Rocket gives us their back-story; he occasionally hints at future happenings in the way of someone trying to keep their audience captive. These back- and side-trackings are reinforced by the editing and special-effects, which, for once, as I alluded to above, don't seem gratuitous, but rather serve the greater purpose of emphasizing Rocket's narration by creating an enthralling visual narration.

Many of the tricks are sort-of low-budget Matrix effects, which is entirely appropriate: both movies rely on violence to tell their stories, though the Matrix' violence is highly stylized, very clean and neat, and, in many ways, glorifies kicking the crap out of The Man when he's holding you down. The special effects reflect the time, money, and sophistication required to create them and mirror the kind of violence created using them. In contrast, City of God's effects are choppy, grainy, and rough, mirroring the hoods' inability to fight and shoot with any sort of accuracy or panache. Nobody fires a gun with a flair when they're too busy worrying about saving their own skin. Unlike the ever-present, ever-stylish Agents of the Matrix, in the City of God, if you get shot, you're not coming back for the sequel.