Reviews & Previews - City of God

Posted on Saturday, June 25, 2005 at 06:00 PM

City of God

By: S. Tran

Starring: Alexandre Rodriguez, Leandro Firmino, Phellipe Haggensen
Directed by: Fernando Meirelles and K‡tia Lund
Screenplay by: Br‡ulio Mantovani (based on the book by Paulo Lins)
Running Time: 135 Minutes
Rated: Rated R for strong brutal violence, sexuality, drug content and language.

There But for the Grace of God

Every once in a while you get lucky at the video store and bring home a foreign film that actually meets the hype surrounding it. This was the case last week when I rented City of God, a Brazilian film with English subtitles released in 2002.

A warning to all first, City of God is not for everyone. The movie is a violent. Although the violence is not as graphic as in some films it is pervasive. Viewers may find it even more disturbing as it generally involves children and young adults.

Having said that however the violence is a very natural extension of the movie and is not gratuitous in anyway. If you can deal with that you will find yourself with a great film.

Based on a true story, City of God follows the lives of three childhood friends growing up in the slums of Rio de Janeiro nicknamed the City of God. We first meet Rocket, Benny and Li'l Dice (played by Alexandre Rodriguez, Leandro Firmino, Phellipe Haggensen respectively for most of the film) as children. In the slums each is witness to the casual violence and prevalent crime that affects their neighbourhood.

Li'l Dice and Benny both take readily to the life of crime and idolize the older gangsters. Rocket manages to stay out of trouble and sees his future as a photographer. Eventually Benny and Li'l Dice (now called Li'l Ze) rise up the ranks of the drug dealers in the City of God while Rocket simply tries to stay alive.

The main actors are solid in their roles. When watching foreign films its always hard to know if the acting is truly any good. Wooden delivery in English is easy to spot, not so easy when the characters are speaking another language. However, the actors seem to be at ease and each brings out the essence of the characters they play convincingly.

Even more astonishing perhaps are the small children who play the main characters in the beginning of the movie as well as the kids who play the "Runts", the younger gang members in the slums. Their performances seem so easy that its hard to believe they weren't just plucked from the streets and told to act naturally.

The directors of the film also do an excellent job bringing us into the slums of Rio. The handheld camera work and grainy film give it more of a documentary feel than a movie. Both directors effectively convey the heat, poverty, chaos and energy of the slums (at least the slums they want us to see). There is nothing in the movie that reminds us we're watching a film, its all so real.

Added to all this is the story about the three boys and the turns their lives take. You become keenly interested in what will happen to them. The City of God is unpredictable and through the use of non-linear story telling and flashbacks the directors keep you guessing about the fate of the boys. In the end when the film ends you do feel like you've glimpsed a part of their lives at least for a time.

I would have liked to have seen more of the families of the boys. You only get fleeting references to them in the film. I think it would have helped develop the characters more to see their interaction with family members. While each actor does a good job, they play more to archetypes than fully realized characters because we don't see other influences in their lives.

The movie does also suffer a little in the last third of the movie. The subplot involving the rival gang takes up more screen time than it should. While it was important to the film there were simply too many scenes of the gangs fighting. Apart from these small weaknesses though City of God is worth your time.


4 out of 5 stars.


NOTE: The showtimes listed on come directly from the theatres' announced schedules, which are distributed to us on a weekly basis. All showtimes are subject to change without notice or recourse to