#18: City of God (2002)

City of God is the first Portuguese-language film on the list, and the only, I believe. But this movie does Brazil proud, coming in at number 18 on a very competitive list - and for good reason. City of God employs a non-linear narrative technique, with the stories of various characters from the favelas, or slums, of Rio de Janeiro being told by the young photographer Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues). He jumps between the stories of the ‘hoods’ with whom he grows up. Being a hood, or hoodlum, is the only career path available to many of the young men of the City of God (or Cidade de Deus) suburb slum, and their stories are rarely ones of success or joy. In fact never, as we see the repeated attempts to gain power or reputation spiralling wildly out of control, as the the slums in their entirety become overwhelmed by the war between L’il Zé’s (Leandro Firmino da Hora) and Knockout Ned’s (Seu Jorge) gangs. Of course, these nicknames are merely what the English subtitle writers deemed closest to the Portuguese originals, and I’m sure that much is lost in translation. Still, this is nothing less than a harrowing account of the crimes, loves and wars of the City of God. 
Firstly, I should mention the technical brilliance of this film, which won Academy Awards in editing and cinematography amongst others. Much as Rocket’s narration jumps back and forth, we career around the slums with the camera, with directors Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund lending screen time to two scenes simultaneously, returning to certain scenes repeatedly from different viewpoints as Rocket reveals new nuances about the unfolding plot lines.
But more than this, it is the way in which City of God captures the characters’ perspectives on life which makes this such an effective, not to mention moving portrayal. There are no caricatures here. Instead, Rocket traces for us the history of each of these men and (some) women. For some we can pinpoint the moment or decision that governs their fate; for some, we watch their rapid descent into criminality and hopelessness. 
Although I’ve described it as ‘harrowing’, this is still an enjoyable watch. There is an overwhelming sense of life and vivacity to City of God, and despite the many tragedies unfolding onscreen, there is never total despair. Certainly, we’re faced with the question, “how on earth can anyone change this circle of criminal life?”. But, there’s no sense that life isn’t worth fighting for, or that these men are worthless. There are constant reminders of the good things in life, of healthy relationships and of a better world being there for the taking, or making.

I’m assuming that this film has probably passed many of you by, but don’t let it! Not least for its educational value as in insight into the Rio favelas between the 60s and 80s, City of God is not to be missed. The violence is often more implied than seen and is more upsetting for its emotional ramifications rather than simple gore-factor. This in itself turns what might have been a deterrent into a recommendation of the film’s skill in capturing the unseen life of Rio’s criminal underworld.