City of God (2002)

“I can only read the pictures.”

 I almost rented this DVD several times, but I thought it was probably too violent for my tastes. Then a strong recommendation from a friend convinced me to watch it. I’m happy to report that City of God is an extremely impressive film. The story is set in Rio de Janeiro, in a notorious slum. The very first scene is a masterpiece of filmmaking, and when the story began, I knew I was about to watch something quite extraordinary. The film is based on the true story of rival gangs, and the story traces the origin of those gangs and their turf wars in the slum. The film is incredibly well made. The editing and photography are superb, and City of God is proof positive that directing is an art.

There are few ways to escape the slum–it’s literally walled off from the rest of the city. Poverty and illiteracy combine to lock the residents into a hopeless existence. Several of the characters try to escape the violent environment. Most fail, and a few succeed. The story covers a twenty-year time period–gang members are slaughtered as power struggles occur within the ghetto. The film smoothly shifts focus as a group of gangsters known as ‘the tender trio’ are replaced by their more violent (and much younger) successors.

Those who thrive in the slum have their own creed of behavior–gangster L’il Ze, for example, believes that all crime should be kept out of the slum, and he is prepared to punish any offenders. Everyone who lives in the slum distrusts the police, and as the story unfolds, it becomes clear why the residents are suspicious of any form of police activity. Society has abandoned the slum dwellers, and in the anarchic slum society that struggles for survival amidst chaos, it naturally follows that the police should also represent just another layer of corruption. I am aghast at the level of poverty in Rio de Janeiro. Children without hope and without a future engage in violent gun battles that result in their bodies littering the streets. These are children who had no childhood, and instead of playing with toys, they compare firearms. The slum is a reality that everyone in Brazil would prefer to forget, but when gang violence escalates beyond the normal levels, no one can ignore the social horror of this ghetto. The film is not some meaningless exercise in the glorification of gangsters; the film’s strength is found in its sociological content and strong statements regarding the corroding nature of dire poverty. City of God is not only a masterpiece of film making, but it is also an incredibly haunting true story. Scenes from this film will be forever etched on your memory.

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