Hundreds of motion pictures come and go year after year. Seldom, one stands out by making an indelible mark on its genre. Rarely, one soars to the status of an all-around tour de force. Yet, City of God masterfully manages to attain this very level. As it shuns the superficial and broadcasts the breadth of human violence and poverty, City of God secures a spot on the shelf alongside the acclaimed classics of The Godfather, Citizen Kane, and Cinema Paradiso.
In the favelas (slums) of Rio de Janeiro, where drug trafficking employs just as many as those who are on a fixed payroll, hostility churns between both the pre- and post-pubescent gangsters and the police. The citizens of the City of God (Cicade de Deus) know they have no way out. Their violence stems from an unimaginable dearth that breeds death and establishes a never-ending cycle of suffering.
Fortunately for Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), his interest in photography could be his ticket out of the favela, but that won’t stop him from having run-ins with the city’s most threatening thugs. Li’l Zé (Leanadro Frimino da Hora) is the prime example of a “hood” who strives to be seen as the town’s top-tier dealer. He murders unmercifully, shows no respect, and refuses to let anyone jeopardize his rise up the hierarchy - including rivals Carrot (Matheus Nachtergaele) and Knockout Ned (Deu Jorge).
First-time director Fernando Meirelles has compiled a narrative based on actual events that includes kids whose stories are as daunting as they are intriguing. Without the slightest ounce of reserve, Meirelles takes an unflinching look at life in the ghetto. His scenes of violence, such as when Li’l Zé traps two children into a corner and forces his protégé to pull the trigger and when Knockout Ned’s girlfriend is battered and raped, are unforgettably unsettling.