City of God will go down in the history of cinema as one of the most influential gangster films of the 21st century.
The City of God, aka Cidade de Deus, is an actual place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It also provides a gripping background for directors Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund’s 2002 crime movie of the same name. The movie became a global hit both critically and commercially, and put Rio’s City of God and Brazilian cinema on the global map at once. The film received four nominations from the Academy Awards and undying love from the audience around the world.
City of God is based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Paulo Lins. It traces the beginnings of the poor neighbourhood, set up to rehabilitate people who have been relocated from Rio’s slums ahead of the city’s beautification. The government’s neglect, lack of education and jobs, poverty and easy access to guns soon turns the shantytown into a hub of criminal activities.
It is the 1960s, when the City of God’s descent into chaos and anarchy began. We see the story from Buscapé’s point of view. He is one of the central characters, who represent a section of the population in the neighbourhood, which has been caught between a rock and a hard place. You stay, you die. You try to leave the neighbourhood, you die. You pick a gun, you die. You don’t pick a gun, you die. A better life seems out of reach for the populace of the area that God seems to have forsaken. Death, it seems, is just one step away.
The neighbourhood is ruled by baby-faced killers as many don’t make it to their late 20s. Kids as young as five aspire to become gangsters. And they don’t want to indulge in petty criminal activities either, for they know that the quick way up the ranks is by targeting the man at the top.
A bunch of up-and-coming gangsters, all of them not older than 10, are enjoying the spoils of their loot. They have just robbed a neighbourhood bakery and are planning to take down Zé Pequeno, the drug lord, who runs the streets now. Zé Pequeno aka Little Joe is another central character in the movie. Starting on a life of crime at a young age, he has killed a number of people in cold blood, with a big grin on his face.
So Little Joe knows that these young boys are not joking about taking his place in the neighbourhood. And it is only a matter of time before they make their move on him. Little Joe, hence, decides to teach boys a lesson. At first, he just wants to scare the boys so so they don’t rob people in his protection, but later decides to scale up the intensity of the punishment. And that brings us to a very important scene in the movie where you pray Little Joe won’t wreak havoc. After all, the boys just robbed a few chickens and stale buns. While we keep wishing, Little Joe keeps raising the stakes. It is not only the ghastliness of physical violence that shocks you to the core, but also the death of innocence. And a deep cut in the hearts and minds of young boys, who are pushed into a hole, where it becomes impossible for them to crawl out.
But, no killing in the City of God goes unpunished. Every death is the beginning of a new chapter of vengeance and revenge, it is a cycle of never-ending violence.
The visual style of City of God is a combination of documentary and cinematic. The camera assumes neurotic and frantic movements during the violence and it creates a sense of urgency and makes it look realistic. The frames get a bit dreamy when characters talk about romance, ambition and their plans to get out of the favela.
City of God will go down in the history of cinema as one of the most influential gangster films of the 21st century. We can also see the influences of this film in director Vetrimaaran’s Vada Chennai. The 2018 Tamil film about a beachside ghetto, which is neglected in favour of improving the lives of those in the posh areas of Chennai city.
City of God is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
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