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Tuesday, 31 July 2018

REWIND REVIEW: City Of God (2002)

(R18+) ★★★★★

Director: Fernando Meirelles & Kátia Lund.

Cast: Alexandre Rodrigues, Leandro Firmino da Hora, Phellipe Haagensen, Alice Braga, Seu Jorge, Matheus Nachtergaele, Daniel Zettel, Graziella Moretto.

It was "discount guns for kids" day at the gun shop.
It's easy to forget the noise City Of God (Cidade de Deus in Portuguese) made back at the turn of the millennium. Here was a Brazilian film enjoying a worldwide cinema release (how many times has that happened in the past 20 years?) and being lapped up by the critics. It was one of the best reviewed films of the year, and received four Oscar nominations (although, bizarrely, not a best foreign language award nod).

At the time of writing, it still sits at #20 on the IDMb top 250 - that's right between Seven Samurai and Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope. It's a regular on 'best of' lists. Empire called it the seventh best world cinema film of all time. Paste called it the greatest film of the '00s.

Seeing it a decade and a half on, removed from all its hype and critical goodwill, three things are striking: 1) it still stands up as a tour de force, 2) it hasn't aged at all and feels strangely timeless, and 3) despite all its accolades, it was, if anything, under-hyped and under-appreciated.

City Of God is a story of violence, and how violence begets violence. It follows the interconnected stories of two young men from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro; in particular a crime-soaked, poverty-stricken area known as the Cidade de Deus. The two youngsters are Rocket (played by Luis Otávio as a child and Alexandre Rodrigues as an adult) and L'il Dice, later L'il Ze (Douglas Silva as a child, Leandro Firmino da Hora as an adult). They represent, respectively, the desperate hope and pervasive nihilism of those in the favelas. 

Rocket is desperate to leave the slums and find a new existence beyond as a photographer. While those around him either get killed or become killers, he refuses to buy into the ever-growing mythology surrounding the crime lords or get involved in their machinations. It's a difficult thing to get away from though - just about everyone he knows is involved in crime in some way, plus he's partial to a bit of weed every now and then, which brings him into contact with the wrong elements of the favelas.

As for L'il Ze, he embarks on a life of crime from a disturbingly young age, his sociopathic and homicidal tendencies helping his meteoric rise through the underworld.

Unlike many other noughties and nineties crime dramas, the violence in City Of God is never glamourised. It's brutal, horrifying, and savage, and it leaves no one untouched. Kids are such a major part of this story, and one of the film's most horrifically intense scenes pulls no punches in showing what happens when you attempt to idolise the perpetrators of these bloody crimes, and fail to realise the reality of it all.

"Reality" is the key word here. Long before the term "gritty" became de rigeur, and handheld cinematography, improvised takes, and using amateur actors became gimmicky and annoying, City Of God utilised these techniques to bring Rio's slums to life in breath-taking fashion. The near-documentary style is used to perfection, not only to help realise the characters and their situations, but to help make the setting an important part of the film. The directors Meirelles and Lund never let the style dominate the many tales they're telling - it only ever works to serve the story.

This "docufiction" approaches helps you forget these are actors on screen. Although, really, they weren't even actors, which makes the stunning performances in this all the more remarkable. The bulk of the cast were young people recruited from the favelas themselves and placed into acting workshops for a couple of months to prepare them for the shoot. Among the cast were Alice Braga (Predators, I Am Legend, Elysium) and Seu Jorge (whose Portuguese covers of Bowie songs were a highlight of The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou). It's Jorge's character who is perhaps the peak of the film's thematic depth and ability to get under your skin. As Knockout Ned, he becomes a rebellious champion in the blood-soaked reality of the favelas, but becomes a character you pity as his own descent into violence takes hold.

But he's just one interesting thread in a tapestry of incredible colours. Even bit players, such as drug dealer Carrot (Nachtergaele), the junkie Tiago (Daniel Zettel), and the wannabe kid gangster Steak With Fries (Darlan Cunha) have fascinating mini-arcs amid the maelstrom of Rocket, L'il Ze and Benny (Haagensen).

Ferociously edited, beautifully shot, and stunningly told, City Of God regularly gut-punches you, lifts you up, and then gut-punches you again. It's a modern classic of crime cinema, far removed from American or British tales of violence. It tells a tale that could only have sprung from the favelas it inadvertently created a tourism buzz around.

Maybe that's why it's never been remade - this is perhaps that rare example of a film that could have only been made at that particular time, in that particular place, with that particular bunch of people. City Of God is the very definition of cinematic lightning in a bottle.

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