Miles outside Brazil's resort city of Rio de Janeiro lies the "City of God," a slum of all slums,
built as a shelter for the homeless and poverty stricken. But within this slum, a violent turf war
is about to erupt between gangs battling for supremacy over drugs and money. In the middle of it
all is a young boy named Buscape, aka Rocket, who stands, camera ready, in the city streets where
violence and bloodshed have become the norm. A staggering masterpiece from newcomer, Fernando
Meirelles, "City of God" is a graphic, striking look at how violence first came to the "City of
God" and how it has forever shaped the city's culture.
Caught in the middle of a gang war, Rocket flashes back and narrates the evolution of violence
in the "City of God," beginning with the formation of the Tender Trio, a group of three young
hoodlums, one of whom happens to be his older brother. However, Rocket is not like his brother,
nor does he wish to be like him. He is too afraid. But he also does not wish to work a
conventional job selling fish either. He wishes to be more than that and has his sights set on
becoming a photographer.
In the meantime, he just tries to stay out of everyone's way. As he states, The Tender Trio are
amateur hoodlums. They make a living stealing gas, knocking over food stands, and bullying other
people. Yet, according to Buscape, they did not have what it takes to become professional hoods. That
was where L'il Dice enters the picture. A young kid with the mind of a gangster, L'il Dice infiltrates
the Tender Trio and suggests a bigger take: a bordello heist. The hoods mock him, but go along with
it, and have L'il Dice stand watch while they raid the place. The Tender Trio did not plan to commit
murder during their crime, but somehow the majority of brothel patrons are executed.
As the cops attempt to track down the Trio, L'il Dice quietly plans his next move with his
friend, Bene. As is later revealed, L'il Dice was behind all of the murders at the
brothel. Meanwhile, the Tender Trio dissolves violently. With greed and a thirst for
power, L'il Dice and Bene take advantage of the Trio's absence and slowly grow into
powerful warlords, unafraid to use violence to achieve their means. Ironically, by
eliminating all of their enemies and controlling all of the drugs in and out of the city,
the two create a more tranquil society.
Throughout these events, Buscape watches his steps cautiously as L'il Dice murders his brother and
Bene takes his girlfriend, Angelica. Although times are still tough, Bene takes a liking to Buscape
and they become mutual friends in the same clique - one that is hippy-like, involving dancing, music,
fashionable clothes, and the beach. In fact, Bene begins to break away from the violence that has
engulfed L'il Dice. So while he becomes the cool-headed one, L'il Dice becomes the hotheaded one. As
a symbol of change and power, L'il Dice changes his name to L'il Ze and begins to exact revenge on
those he doesn't like, even those who work for him.
As Bene and Angelica become closer, Bene wishes to escape the thug life and start a
family. Soon, his thoughts rub off on L'il Ze. But Ze's attempts at acquiring a girlfriend
result in tragedy and cycles the violence again. He lusts after another man's girl, rapes
her, and murders many of the boyfriend's family members. Knockout Ned is his name, an
expert in karate, who is reluctant to join the war; however, because of the violence done
to his family, he is easily convinced to exact revenge. While each side recruits more
members, many of whom are children, the war escalates into a final showdown. All the
while, Buscape, now a photographer for a local paper, observes and records the tumultuous
Gritty, realistic, and disturbing, "City of God" is a Brazilian "Scarface," about the rise and
fall of gang lords and life in the poverty stricken ghettos outside of Rio. Interestingly, the
protagonist in the film is not a person, but rather, a place: Cidade de Deus. And
unfortunately for most residents, the city was more like a war zone than a shelter. From the
1960's through the mid-80's, the city gained a reputation as being one of the most dangerous
places in the world, full of muggers and bandits, drug dealers and gangs, all ruthless and
heavily armed. And this film easily shows why and how. Paulo Lins wrote the novel for which
the film is based and much of his novel stems from his own personal experience, having been
raised in the infamous favela since he was seven years old.
With its honest portrayal of gang violence, little children are recruited in the battle for
supremacy, oftentimes killing without consequence and oftentimes killing many innocent people.
Sometimes, they even kill each other as is depicted in one of the more troubling scenes. Such
pictures have caused many to leave the theater in disgust. But it's hard to mask the reality.
These are real life events inspired by Wilson Rodriguez, a photographer who, like Lins, grew
up in the "City of God." The film does not shock for shock's sake. It does so only to be
One of the most impressive things about this film is how it is told. Fernando Meirelles
and Katia Lund do a phenomenal job of piecing all of the plots and subplots together
without missing a beat. I particularly loved how the film would introduce a character at a
point in time and then come back to their story later on, when it made more sense. Equally
impressive is the way they flashback to show details of things not easily seen the first
time around. They reveal these things without being too conspicuous. It was like an
intricately woven piece of art - simply brilliant. In addition, the coordination efforts
alone involving workshops for the nearly 120 or so children and other non-professional
actors involved is amazing. Such authenticity makes the universe vivid and believable.
In the end, we're left with a moral: a society that has been built with a history of
violence will always be violent for future generations to come. It becomes intertwined
with its culture. We see that in Knockout Ned and we see that in other innocent
bystanders, who as a result of indirect violent acts become violent themselves. And that
is its tragedy - a gloomy outlook and never ending cycle, where hopes and dreams are few
and the rule of the gun is supreme. It's a sobering look into the depths of a dark