BIASES: The critical acclaim is deafening.
MAJOR PLAYERS: No one you've ever heard of - they're all Brazilian.
late than never, right? Months ago, a producer (who, while
sometimes having suspect judgment, isn't prone to hyperbole)
told me that this was one of the best films he had ever seen.
With it being foreign, independent, and subtitled, a brotha
didn't get around to checking it out until now. And that is
my bad - this is not only the best film of last year, but
the best film I have seen in many years.
Growing up in Rio de Janeiro's City of God slums ain't easy.
Starting off in Brazil's turbulent '60s, the Tender Trio,
a loose gang of ghetto Robin Hoods who brazenly stick up gas
trucks in broad daylight, graduate into shadier, more dangerous
ventures at the behest of a little kid, bloodthirsty wannabe
hoodlum Li'l Dice. Somehow surviving into the transitional
'70s, Li'l Dice has grown into the hood rich Li'l Zé
(Leandro Firmino), king of the City of God's bustling coke
trade. Blessed with a gift of crime and saddled with a massive
short man-ugly man's complex, Li'l Zé tries to take
over the weed trade too, touching off a brutal gang war that
embroils the City of God right on into the '80s. Narrating
and documenting it all is aspiring photographer Rocket (Alexandre
Rodrigues), Li'l Zé's contemporary, but a fundamentally
good guy who seems to be unable to escape the slum's perpetual
This is a movie that is brilliant and amazing in every single
way; to single out any production credits would be redundant.
I am, however, flabbergasted at the high level of skill demonstrated
in the cinematography, editing, lighting, direction, and writing,
employing a script so deep and complex, it makes "Mystic
River" look like "Cat in the Hat." Based off
Paulo Lins' novel, Bráulio Mantovani's screenplay is
a complex entanglement of relationships told as a series of
coming-of-age vignettes by our would-be hero Rocket, although
it is abundantly clear that the charismatically psychotic
Li'l Zé, Nino Brown and Hitler's lovechild, is the
true protagonist of this movie. If you're not born strapped,
you eventually evolve into a gun-toting hood, where eight
year old boys espouse inspired crap like this: "I smoke,
snort, I've robbed and killed…I'm a man." As insane
as this may sound, in a slum caught in a neverending cycle
of violence where killing is as natural as breathing and life
expectancy is short, that eight year old truly IS a man. Other
notable lines: "My heart has chosen you. And I always
follow my heart;" "A hood doesn't stop; he only
takes a break;" and "The war's on. Let's start with
Although entirely in Portuguese and whatever native slang
found in Brazil, the performances are effortless. Rodrigues
is charmingly appealing as the lanky, pimple-faced, dispassionate
narrator, relating the action and the backgrounds behind it
as straightforwardly as the truth captured by a camera shutter.
Firmino's Li'l Zé is nothing short of inspired, adding
a new icon to the pantheon of gangster mafiosos. Already feted
for his casual acceptance of murder and buck wild attitude
by a Redman hip hop mixtape song, Li'l Zé has an unquenchable
thirst to kill matched only by an insatiable quest for power.
Firmino has serious, sleepy, yet deadly brown eyes that belie
an emotionally stunted character with only one purpose in
life, offering up a fascinating performance that is never
one note and wholly unpredictable. You can't take your eyes
off him for a second or you just might miss his next hotheaded
But the real star is Fernando Meirelles and the world he has
created. Newly minted as an Oscar nominated director, Meirelles
has an astonishing gift for visual storytelling that might
as well be a script in itself, meshing creative shot selection
with extraordinarily inventive editing. In Meirelles' City
of God - the ultimate oxymoron ("Why remain in a city
where God has forgotten you?") - every day is a test
of your manhood, where robbery is a way of life and people
exist off the twin currencies of weed and cool. In this place
the good, young, and handsome die young, a city of no hope
and no escape, where drugs, guns, and hustling all start from
the crib. I kept thinking that these guys need a hobby, to
read a book or something. Yet it speaks volumes for Meirelles'
deft and skilled storytelling that despite the shocking, incessant
brutality, he finds amazing beauty in violence (like early
John Woo) as well as humor, jacking up the film full of retro,
throwback flair. His stylish, astounding strobe light club
sequence is pure channeling, a talented director announcing
his presence with authority.
I am on record among my friends about how much I hate the
hot garbage on celluloid that is "Belly," a somewhat
championed hip hop gangster flick among black folk. All style
and no substance (nor dialogue, acting, plot, etc.), "Belly"
isn't even "New Jack City" or "Scarface,"
yet, in the dearth of anything that speaks for this generation,
it has been illegitimately adopted into the community's cultural
lexicon. I now propose that City of God rightfully take its
place, a shining example of what "Belly" wishes
it could be if it had an infusion of, oh, I don't know, TALENT.
If there is any justice in the world, "City of God"
will be the next, true urban classic.
Please believe that I am not a myopically xenophobic American
nor of the mind set that just because something is foreign
it is inherently better. But, sometimes, a foreign eye can
bring a fresh perspective to celebrated old genres such as
the hood flick that have fallen into cultural disarray. Just
released on DVD, this is a surefire REEL DEAL Collectible,
taking the spot that "Belly" never, ever had. C'mon
y'all, it's a no-brainer: "In God we trust."
An urban legend/instant classic.
Like what you read? Agree/disagree with The Reel Deal? Think
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Edwardo Jackson is the author of the novels EVER AFTER and
NEVA HAFTA, (Villard/Random House), a writer for UrbanFilmPremiere.com,
and an LA-based screenwriter. Visit his website at www.edwardojackson.com
© 2004, Edwardo Jackson