City of God – Cidade de Deus Review

Matt Day has reviewed the region 2 release of City of God, which is released today. This startling Brazilian film is certainly one of the best of the year, but have Miramax produced a DVD to match?

The Film

Rio de Janeiro is a city known the world over for its samba music and its carnival, not only is it the capital of Brazil, but it’s their tourist capital too. It’s an image the Brazilian government fought hard to earn and harder to maintain, keeping the streets clean and crime free isn’t easy, and like any clean up operation, you need somewhere to dump your rubbish.

The City of God is the nickname given to Rio’s most notorious slum, the Brazilian authorities deciding that rather than solve the problem of the poor and homeless cluttering up Rio they would simply move them, and so thousands were displaced into the City. Provided with only the most rudimentary of homes, with no luxuries like street lights or paved roads, they were expected to simply fade away, no longer being a problem on the political radar. Unfortunately the residents of the City didn’t all seem so happy with their situation, and naturally many of them weren’t willing to work their way up, a life of crime seeming like a much easier route to happiness.

The Tender Trio are three aspiring hoodlums, and even though they wouldn’t know the big time if it attacked them with a baseball bat, the kids of the ghetto aspire to be just like these local outlaws. None more so than Lil’ Dice, his fingers may barely be big enough to grip a pistol but his head is overflowing with criminal enterprise, and that happens to be the thing that the Trio are lacking. Lil’ Dice plans a motel raid for them, holding up the register and then going to work on the guests, who’ve snuck away for a night – or an hour – of illicit passion. When the police arrive they’re presented with a bloodbath, the Tender Trio are now the most wanted people in the City of God. Forced to go on the run it seems their reign as the idols of the wannabe criminals is coming to an end.

Fast forward a decade and Lil’ Dice is all grown up, now calling himself Lil’ Ze he wants nothing more than to be the boss of the ghetto, it’s not the money, the drugs or the women he craves, its simply the power. It seems that the years have only added experience to his already formidable criminal mind, and before you know it Ze is running the drugs business in the city, not only that but his influence is such that other forms of crime have all but stopped. You can’t so much as snatch a loaf of bread without Ze’s approval, and that’s approval he isn’t giving, anyone caught breaking the law – and forcing the police to take an interest in the slum – is severely punished. By becoming the most feared criminal the City of God has ever seen Ze has made the streets safer for the everyday folk than the government ever could, he’s riding the crest of a wave, but eventually he’s going to meet the shore.
You don’t get far in a life of crime without making enemies, and despite the fact Ze has made a habit of killing anyone that he thinks will cause him a problem a few have slipped trough the cracks, a few have been let go as favours to his best friend and business partner Benny, and there are a few he never knew existed – friends and family of those he’s killed. As the list grows it becomes clear, all they need is a leader, and a spark, for the City to become a war zone.

Rocket has grown up in the City, and therefore around crime, but despite his brother Goose being one of the Tender Trio Rocket has never had an urge to enter the life. His passion has always been photography, he dreams of one day working for a newspaper, getting paid to do the one thing he loves. For now he has to make do with being his friends ‘official photographer’ documenting all the ways 16 year olds waste their time, and their lives. He’s managed to befriend an employee – another resident of the City – in the photo-lab of one of Rio’s biggest papers which he hopes could one day lead to a job, but with his friends all being enveloped by Ze’s underworld how long can he remain uninvolved as the City of God draws its battle-lines.

City of God feels real, from beginning to end, and often too real. It’s based on a true story, directed by a former documentary filmmaker, and acted by residents of the real City of God, it doesn’t get much more real than that. And truth is much stranger than fiction. If you were asked to imagine a story of gangsters, most under 20, many under 10, you’d probably bring to mind something more along the lines of Bugsy Malone. More often comparisons have been drawn with Goodfellas, but this would be Goodfellas where most of the family is made up of Joe Pesci’s, these kids are crazy, and they’re all but above the law. Their street battles are more bloody and ruthless than the worst of American legend, and when a turf war breaks out here it looks more like civil war, the police are nowhere in sight as the gangs of thugs with a cobbled together armoury kill without hesitation, and even with a sense of joy.

The direction is near flawless, for a documentary filmmaker Fernando Meirelles has an amazingly cinematic technique, using every trick in the book, from split screen to time lapse to tell the story of the City. The narrative jumps back and forth through time, freezing in the middle of a potentially explosive scene and whipping back to show the chain of events that have brought us to this point, it’s an exciting, attention grabbing style that will keep you gripped. City of God is a complex and brutal look at life in one of the most dangerous places on Earth, and easily one of he best films of the year, if you miss this you’re missing out on what cinema is all about.

The Picture

The film is shot with a largely hand held, often grainy look, full of dazzling colours and beautiful scenery and the transfer captures this brilliantly. It’s a clean print, a well encoded transfer, the colour levels are as excellent as the source material requires and the detail levels are superb. It couldn’t have asked for better treatment.

The Sound

Although less exciting than the visuals the soundtrack has some great moments that make good use of the format. Right from the start the inter-cut shots of a blade being sharpened send piercing shrieks through your speakers, seemingly coming at you from all around, and gun battles will light up every speaker. It may be quite a dialogue heavy film but every effort has been made to make this an engaging soundtrack.
The film is presented in its original Portuguese language and there is no English dubbed track available on the disc.

The Extras

News From A Personal War

There may only be one extra feature on this disc but it’s an excellent one, this hour long documentary about the real favelas of Rio de Janeiro is as good as they come. Shot over the course of two years it examines how the slums were taken over by the gangsters, how the police brutally treat the residents, and how much hope there is for the situation. Interviewing everyone from street dealers, gang members not yet into their teens, and a police chief who is brutally honest about the situation in the slums and the attitude the police take towards them, it’s an often shocking piece. As you watch a Brazilian policeman cheerfully display the ridiculously powerful artillery they use to fight the dealers you may feel disgust for their attitudes, but just wait until you’re given a tour of the confiscated weapons room down at the station and then try to condemn their actions. It may well not present many answers, but it asks an awful lot of questions and will certainly leave you thinking long after you’ve finished watching.


City of God is a dazzling film, hard to fault and more than worthy of the praise that has already been lavished on it, you’ll find it on every top ten list come the end of the year. The DVD is less spectacular, and while the presentation of the film itself is first rate it would have been great for some material on the making of the film to be included, you’d think a documentary maker would have shot some behind the scenes footage! That, however, doesn’t stop this from being an essential purchase.

Matt Day

Updated: Sep 22, 2003

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