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City of God

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2003 1 Jan
City of God
from Film Forum, 02/06/03

City of God, the critically acclaimed film from Fernando Meirelles, takes viewers to a troubled barrio in Brazil. This "city" is actually a sprawling government housing development for homeless people of the Rio de Janeiro region. In this relatively un-policed community, drug lords run the show. Using a cast of young people who really live in these conditions, Meirelles focuses his story on a teenage boy named Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues).

Rocket struggles to stay clean, but it is impossible to avoid encounters with the temperamental gang members—they are his neighbors and his friends. Fortunately, Rocket has higher ambitions. He wants to be a photographer, which puts him in good stead: the egotistical gang leaders are eager to get their defiant faces in the paper while the papers want exciting material. Rocket thus walks a thin line between criminal corruption and artist integrity. He wants to tell the truth, but he risks his life in doing so.

Rocket's story parallels that of a trigger-happy drug dealer called Li'l Ze (Firmino da Hora), whose growth from an angry child to a bloodthirsty warlord is the film's most troubling thread. There is a clear moral: you can't play with the devil without being burned.

City of God begins in the '60s, jumps to the '70s, and ends in the '80s. During the end credits, we are treated to real news clips that reveal just how true-to-life the film has been. What sets this film apart as more than just another gangster epic is the searing intensity and authenticity of Meirelles's vision, supported by his tremendous skill with a camera. The result is every bit as solid a film as Martin Scorsese's GoodFellas and much more successful than Scorsese's Gangs of New York. Meirelles gets better performances out of these untrained kids than most American directors get out of Hollywood stars.

Bob Nusser (Preview) gives City of God a "negative acceptability rating" because of "graphic violence, rough language, sexual content, and drug abuse." And Movieguide's critic argues, "The filmmakers are happy with just chronicling the disease that took control of this slum, not in offering any positive solutions."

But it is not the responsibility of the artist to provide answers. Rather, an artist should offer us a vision that is honest enough to let us draw our own conclusions. Many Christians seem to think that the truth needs to be inserted into a good story—Jesus as product placement. But if an artist has crafted his work with excellence, the truth will be evident for those with eyes to see —good storytelling necessarily reflects the truth. These stories, as ugly as they are, are honest, and they need to be told and heard.

Meirelles is not glorifying these gun-toting kids. He is instead trying to wake the world up to these forgotten and needy children. Further, he used the film as an opportunity to offer these kids some training in filmmaking, encouraging talents which could help them escape their insufferable conditions. (The film, however, is certainly not for younger viewers or those with weak stomachs.)

Mike Hertenstein (Cornerstone) writes, "I found it much less excessive, at least in terms of onscreen gore, than I expected. Indeed, one senses a certain discretion on the part of the director, given the subject matter. An incredible accomplishment … a picture of this crazy world which is the whole world for those struggling to survive within it."

J. Robert Parks (The Phantom Tollbooth) calls it "a bravura piece of filmmaking that takes the gangster movie and brings it powerfully into the 21st century. I can't think of a gangster movie since The Godfather II that's as powerful and entertaining as this one."

Mainstream critics who saw the film at festivals started raving about the film before its widespread theatrical run began. Lisa Schwarzbaum (Entertainment Weekly) says, "City of God pulses with atmosphere and vibrates with authenticity." Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times) agrees: "City of God does not exploit or condescend, does not pump up its stories for contrived effect, does not contain silly and reassuring romantic sidebars, but simply looks, with a passionately knowing eye, at what it knows."

from Film Forum, 02/27/03

Elsewhere, Steve Parish (The Film Forum) praises City of God, the Brazilian drama about youth drawn to drugs and violence in a homeless district. Parish calls it "an enriching film. Its violence … may stop debut director Fernando Meirelles winning the foreign film Oscar … but the rawness of these scenes, unlike the stylized and sometimes sanitized mayhem of much Hollywood fare, is part of the power of his film."