City of God (Cidade de Deus) Made in: Brazil Language: Portuguese Starring: Alexandre Rodrigues, Leandro Firmino, Alice Braga, Phellipe Haagensen, Seu Jorge Directed by: Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund, based on the novel by Paulo Lins Year: 2002
Synopsis: Taking place in the '60s and '70s, City of God is a Brazilian film that tells the story of one of Rio de Janeiro's most notorious slums (which the movie is named for).
Too frightened to become a full-fledged gangster but not quite smart enough for school, Buscapé (Alexandre Rodrigues), aka "Rocket," is a boy yearning to leave the City of God for a secure future and legitimate employment as a photographer.
Although he's the film's central character, he acts as narrator rather than protagonist. We get a taste of slum life through his eyes, but actually follow the stories of other characters with whom Rocket is acquainted.
Beginning with Rocket's childhood, the story is told mainly by detailing the events surrounding the life of Zé Pequeno (Leandro Firmino), aka "Li'l Zé," one of most notorious drug dealers in Rio de Janeiro's history. Although he's about the same age as Rocket, Li'l Zé's life takes a completely different turn, and reflects the poverty, brutal violence, pervasive drugs, and police corruption that render the slum a lawless war zone.
The Good: Highly detailed and engaging, City of God is believable and intense. The brutal violence is never romanticized, but serves to emphasize the sense of hopelessness and desperation of life in the slum.
But going deeper, the most powerful element found in this film is the people whose lives are affected by the violence and drugs.
A vivid illustration of the effects of life in the slum is told in the story of Mané Galinha (Seu Jorge), aka "Knockout Ned." According to the story, he starts out as a normal, decent person who becomes a random victim of violence at the hands of Li'l Zé and his gang.
Seeking revenge, Knockout Ned gets drawn into a cycle of violence and retaliation, and himself becomes a notorious thug who ends up committing robberies, illegally trading arms, and taking innocent lives. In the end, Galinha becomes just as every bit as twisted, hated, and feared as his nemesis, Li'l Zé.
The film is a sobering account about the complexity of urban poverty, and how similar people, through a series of small personal decisions, can make their lives go in radically different directions.
The Bad: This film will made me reconsider that vacation to Brazil.
Who would like this movie: Not for the faint of heart, you'll most appreciate this film if you're interested in gritty, urban dramas and the social issues they present. City of God holds nothing back in portraying the stark contrast between this forgotten, dark section of Rio de Janeiro and the picturesque beauty that most of us imagine Brazil to be.