#21: City of God (2002)


When and how did I watch this?

April 30th, 2017, on Amazon.

Had I seen this film already?


What did I know about the movie before watching it?

One of the first films that I noticed and was unfamiliar with when I initially encountered the IMDb Top 250 years ago.  Of course, several films have come and gone in the top 50 or so, but this relatively recent foreign film has stayed.

What do I know about it now?

City of God strives to be innovative from the very beginning, but falls into a handful of cliches — the quick cuts, the shaky camera, the kids running through the ghetto, and then a “freeze” for a narration and flashback to take place.  But before these stylistic tricks become obvious to the viewer, the story has already established some themes using brutal symbolism before the credits even finish: a live chicken is looking about as his kind is taken up, feathered, chopped up, and fried before its eyes.  The director uses this playfully, showing the chicken frantically looking for an opportunity to escape.  The chicken indeed manages to make a run for it, and some kids start running after it. This is the end of the humor. We get another glimpse of the chicken’s pursuers, who are now wielding guns. It cuts to a couple of kids in school uniforms, also about sixteen years old, who encounter the chicken, and then the gun-toting youth — maybe 20 of them — and opposite of this wall of gangsters is a barricade of police officers, weapons drawn and pointed at the kids.

The film continues like this — and I hesitate to continue describing it in detail, both for content and in fear of ruining it — with several scenes of unfortunate circumstances, corruption, acts of vengeance, and relentless violence. “Relentless” is somewhat perjorative in nature, because the violence is always around the corner, and it is never pleasant or redeeming.

What are some themes in the film?

Revenge, pride, coming of age, gang violence, drug trade, corruption

Did this affect me personally?

A scene involving a pair of kids who couldn’t have been more than seven years old was particularly troubling.  Benny’s death was difficult as well.

Why is this ranked #21?

This has been a mainstay in the top 25 because of its compelling storytelling and a display of the all-too-real inner city strife of Rio. And while there are other films that accomplish similar things, we’re watching children in some stunning and convincing roles.

Did my wife watch/like it?

She watched this one out the corner of her eye. Having children of our own makes this film far more emotional.

Would I watch it again?

No way.  This one is too heavy.

Would I recommend it to a friend?

As Amereicans, we exercise our right of free speech and scream about injustice and corruption in our country often. We’re supposed to be the best — at least, that’s what residual nationalism and current affluence tells us to believe — so anything substandard is unacceptable in our eyes. Meanwhile, millions of people are subject to environments similar to what’s seen in City of God, and we don’t blink.  This is certainly an eye-opening film.

Does it deserve to be on this list as one of the greatest films of all time?

Yes.  We watch movies to be entertained and to perhaps acquire perspective.  City of God is entertaining because it’s breathtakingly beautiful; we indeed acquire perspective as this terrible underbelly is exposed in brutal fashion. It’s all too vivid, reaching into excess and bombastic behavior and language, but then we remember the context and the desperation of the innards of Rio de Janeiro.  Hundreds of kids are toting weapons, and the local police are either ill-equipped to handle it or paid off to turn their heads. In the end, we get to turn off the TV and say, “Whew, I’m glad I’m not there,” but there is lingering and valuable sympathy garnered from it, for more is revealed than we asked for, which might be the whole point.

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