Steak-and-Fries: I smoke, I snort. I’ve killed and robbed. I’m a man.
Many gangster and/or crime films show the consequences of the life, the rise and fall (Scarface, Goodfellas, Blow). City of God does this to some degree, but one of the differences here (and what acts as a powerful social critique) is the fact that most of the “gangsters” in the film didn’t choose the life, it chose them (they’re just children).
Set in the slums of Rio, we follow the action through the eyes of a young photographer. He is desperately trying to avoid a life of crime, but finds himself either flirting with or even getting stuck, literally, right in the middle of the violence and drugs that surround him (witness the memorable opening).
When I first heard this plot, I thought to myself, “lame.” It sounds repetitive and uninspired, like you’ve seen it before. I found this description a gross simplification. It makes no mention of the brilliant tapestry of characters the film employs or the way the story has little asides filling in all the blanks for a full examination and understanding of this time and place.
“Explosive” is a great word for this one. Everything feels like it’s on full-tilt, fighting to give the audience the most visceral cinema experience possible, from the untrained adolescent cast, to the tricky handheld camera work (robbed of an Oscar, sorry Master and Commander), and especially the propulsive editing.
It’s also really funny in unexpected ways. I love the hilarious moment when Knockout Ned ponders why the crazy, ruthless, rapist, Li’l Ze, left him alive, cut to Li’l Ze stopping and thinking aloud the exact same thing. It’s really quite tragic, but I find it amusingly ironic too.
Most movies try really hard to be as clever and hard-hitting as this one but come off as false. City of God is natural, potent and–frighteningly–true.