Raw, intoxicating, and sometimes too much to stomach, City of God is a coming-of-age film where growing up is not guaranteed.
On the surface, City of God is about the poverty-stricken and drug run streets of a Brazilian favela, though, on a much more complex level, it is all about choice. Recounted in three chapters and narrated by our main protagonist, Rocket, the plot follows the lives of multiple young men and their decisions that, more often than not, result in matters of life and death.
City of God is loosely based on the novel of the same name by Paulo Lins, which uses first-hand research and interviews to explore the author’s own experiences growing up in Cidade de Deus. From a young age, Rocket watches his older brother and other boys around him resort to gang violence and robbery, but all he wants to do is take photos. By the 70’s power-hungry leader Lil Ze has overrun the city with gang rivalry, and Rocket must decide which path to take; one of loyalty or one of survival.
The film opens with a kaleidoscope of quick cutting close up shots, mimicking how it would feel to see, hear and endure the chaos of the slum in all its authenticity. Immediately, the film possesses a rhythmic quality, and the cameras function as an omniscient eye will soon become more apparent as the narrative goes on. After witnessing, what seems to be, the innocent chase of an AWOL chicken, a gang of felon youths come face to face with the police. Caught in the middle of this standoff – is our central character, Rocket.
A 360-degree revolving shot is used to mirror Rocket’s perspective and position in life, stuck between one side representing the unlawful fate of staying in the slums and the other being a path of escape. In this instance, the camera is used to metaphorically symbolise Rocket’s uncertainty as to where he should turn in life, a motif repeated throughout. In the same way that the camera disorientates, time does not work linearly in City of God, and it becomes apparent that this is the final scene of the film. The use of time in this way displaces ideas of linear progress, for we know almost immediately that Rockets circumstance is determined by the ever-present violence around him.
A standout aspect of the film and what makes it so striking and relatable is director Fernando Meirelles‘s decision to use amateur actors. The level of authenticity that it gives the narrative is evident, which emulates a documentary-style format when combined with the shots. This choice is a self-reflexive nod to the film’s origin as an autobiographical account and Rocket’s role as an observer – something that will ultimately allow him to leave.
Overall, City of God is a film that plays on all of your senses, not just your eyes. It is a true edge-of-your-seat viewing experience that leaves you simultaneously wanting more but also breathing a sigh of relief in the credits.