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CITY OF GOD

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Matheus Nachtergaele, Alexandre Rodrigues, Leandro Firmino da Hora, Jonathan Haagensen, Phellipe Haagensen, Douglas Silva, Daniel Zettel, Seu Jorge
Director: Fernando Meirelles
Audio: Portugese Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Miramax
Features: See Review
Length: 130 Minutes
Release Date: June 8, 2004

“Have you lost your mind? You're just a child!"

"I smoke, I snort, I've killed and robbed. I'M A MAN."

Film ****

Martin Scorsese's GoodFellas remains my favorite film of all time. I remember my first viewing as if it were yesterday. Much of the reason for this has to with the fact that the film never loses its momentum after the first viewing. Fourteen years, Scorsese's astoundingly marvelous film manages to have the same overall effect upon each individual viewing. I never thought I'd see another film to match the level of violence and authenticity, but that was before City of God came along. A work of monumental brilliance, it is easily at the level of both GoodFellas and Pulp Fiction.

Some of the best films go beyond the realm of simply watching a film. They wound up at the level of an experience, or of a journey. City of God is such a film. It combines a masterfully told story (based on true events) with a sensational visual style that ranks with some of the most innovative of our time. Like GoodFellas, it’s story spans over three decades, with many startling surprises. The film’s narrative structure is, without a doubt, breathtaking in the most unconventional form. If there is one word to describe this experience, the best one is: unshakeable.

Brazilian filmmaker Fernando Meirelles might as well be Brazil's very own Scorsese in terms of storytelling. One thing's for sure, though, Meirelles has made a mark for himself as director of strong visual impact. Having seen just this one film, I can certainly go so high as to rank him with the likes of Oliver Stone. His maneuvering of the camera, precise use of edit cuts and coloring combine to make each image a most lasting impression. It's a solid match up for the striking story that is told.

Set in a crime ridden slum of Rio de Janeiro, the film's story is told from the perspective of a young man who calls himself Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues). The story is told in flashback form, focusing on Rocket's experience's as a young boy witnessing a birth of hell ignite right before him. When we first see him, we can already believe that Rocket is something of a survivor, which is something to be grateful for in this particular slum.

Rocket, who now works as a photographer for a local paper, recollects moments of the past that led to the present. We are then plunged into his story, where it's revealed that dealing in drugs and crime is a way of life. In the slum which is referred to as the City of God, the supreme desire for quick cash and a certain feeling of power is to get in on the action. What's ironic is that even with all of the perks of the trade, there isn't even much green to go around simply because the slum is just too poor.

Nonetheless, a mad hungry figure named Li’l Ze (Leanandro Frimino da Hora) reigns as the king of the drug lords during this time. Rocket knows him because he watched him grow from an innocent figure to bloodthirsty predator in a heartbeat, which is how fast it actually takes to become seduced by a life of crime in this neighborhood. What forced Li’l Ze to be molded into such a fearing presence is revealed in the first have of the story, while the second half reveals him at his most ruthless. He is a remorseless killing machine who would gladly have anyone connected to his rivals wiped out in a second. His two main rivals are the equally power hungry criminals Carrot (Matheus Nachtergaele) and Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge).

Story-wise, there are truly some amazing elements to take note at. The one that struck me the most is how much of a survivor Rocket is. He has a passion for photography. As a little boy, obtains a stolen camera and it turns out to be the one thing that ends up saving his life. He ends up getting a good paying job at a local paper, whose staff is much impressed by the pictures he is able to get. He knows pretty much everyone in the rival gangs, and each gang love the public exposure, feeling that it injects added fear to everyone else.

The visual style in the film is one for the history books. The washed up colors and purposefully high contrast imagery (there is hardly a shot in the film that doesn’t appear in brown or red) echoes the visual brilliance and daring of Three Kings. The cinematography provided by Cesar Charlone is nothing short of astounding. Many technical tricks with the camera are used, including that of a frenetic hand-held, that turn up individual shots I never even thought were possible. Charlone earned a much deserving Oscar nomination for his work.

Although I cherish this film a great deal, I must warn the squeamish and easily offended that it contains probably some of the most disturbing onscreen violence you’re likely to ever come across. It isn’t exactly laden with blood, but the story includes moments where young kids, and by that I mean barely in pre-teen years, committing acts of killing at will. A good number of youths get in with both of the gangs and have committed themselves to a harsh and horrific take-no-prisoners kind of street war. I, myself, rarely ever get offended by such material, and even I was amazed by some of the things I was seeing. But in the end, it is necessary in regards to the storytelling of a place where there is basically no sort of hope for anyone living in it.

City of God is not only one of last year’s most brilliant achievements, but it’s quite simply one of the most striking film experiences I have ever had. I haven’t encountered a huge level of impact from many films in recent years that measured up to the one I got from this one. I find it easy to believe that it will become a much talked about and cherished piece for years to come.

Video ****

The look of this film is the key to most of its all around power, and Miramax has perfected the effect with what is a most amazing presentation. The anamorphic picture does nothing short of engulf you in its atmosphere. The level of detail is thoroughly alive and immense, and the high contrast images resonate amazingly in the presentation. In short, it’s a groundbreaking performance of a groundbreaking looking film.

Audio ****

Likewise for the 5.1 mix. The sound in the film is that of extreme originality. Through the many technical wonders provided by Fernando Meirelles and his crew, the mix delivers stunning quality in each specific area. Levels of music, dialogue, sequences of striking violence and other technical effects help to make one very memorable DVD presentation your sure to remember. High marks all the way!

Features **

Though the extras are a bit light this time around, the sole feature is a very good bonus—a documentary entitled “News From a Personal War”.

Summary:

City of God is much deserving of all the acclaim it has received from critics and audiences worldwide, and the DVD handling, I hope, will increase the acclaim by those who are fortunate enough to have a chance to see it. Anyone who appreciates great filmmaking and storytelling should not hesitate in checking this out.