At the 2003 Singapore International Film Festival, City of God (Cidade de Deus) was the first show I saw that got a round of applause. It was without a doubt one of the two best things I saw at the film fest (The Man Without a Past being the other). City of God, as the Cannes-following masses know, is a cinematic examination of life in the favelas of Rio – that was basically all I knew about it, since I was trying to avoid reading about the movie before watching it, and I was surprised and impressed that the movie comes across as vital rather than nihilistic. It’s easier, in a way, to give up on an utterly hopeless world (Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate); this film alternates between tender moments that reel you in and then casual violence, which I think is what rends your heart.
City of God starts at a climactic point, then pulls into flashback, but even the flashbacks have flashbacks as, like a shot being adjusted through a lens, the life stories of people – Goose, Benny, Knockout Ned – go in and out of focus all held together by the loose thread of Rocket. The technique isn’t new (see Richard Linklater’s Slacker or Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction for variations on the method) but the execution is generally excellent, and each person I think is genuinely riveting. (Inevitably, some stories fall by the wayside – I would’ve liked to know what happened to Angelica.) I felt real fear for Rocket’s safety near the end, and it’s been a while since a thriller made me care. But then City of God made me care even for the chicken in the chase scene.
As perhaps suggested by how this particular review is jumping scattershot among various topics, I found City of God frenetic, breathtaking, and compelling. It’s a real-life Lord of the Flies, with children and men hardly out of their childhoods running the favelas, feeding cycles of violence. The stories of Rocket the photographer and Li’l Ze the gang leader are the obvious opposition here, showing how different the lives of two men from the City of God turned out, and again I’m glad the film avoids setting up any too-obvious parallels between the two, and just tells their stories. Jump cuts, freeze frames, whip pans – the movie is chock-a-bloc with technical devices, which I’m normally wary about, but in this case I think it adds to the kinetic feel of the film, suggesting that there are a million stories to be told about the favelas. It just about overwhelms you, as though the film itself was on speed or coke, and by suggesting the humanity of the numerous inhabitants of Rio’s slums, it brings you to a point of full comprehension of the horror of favela life.
(Taken from Delta Sierra Arts)