Reviewing the Queue: City of God (2002)

Li’l Dice (Douglas Silva) proves early on that his capacity for violence is unmatched.

With the digital libraries of online streaming services expanding more and more, choosing which movie to watch has become difficult. I will be digging through these online queues in hope of bringing you a movie worth watching. This time we’re taking a look at City of God, a violent, sobering, and surreal drama from directors Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund and available on Amazon’s Prime Instant Video.

Beginning in Brazil in the 1960s, City of God spans two decades telling the story of Cicade de Deus (the eponymous title in Portuguese) – a low-class section of Rio de Janeiro governed by illegal drug trade. While that may sound like the premise of a film you’ve watched plenty of times before, I can guarantee the location of the film is like nothing else you’ve seen. Shot on location in Brazil and using amateur actors recruited from the actual Rio de Janeiro favelas (slums), City of God shines brightly with its rays of gritty realism.

Children are very rarely portrayed as killers, and even rarer are they remorseless in their acts. But it’s the children who are at the center of the crime in City of God, and it changes the tone of the film quite a bit. It’s hard to look at a grown man fresh off a murder-spree and strung out on cocaine and think that life let him down. But when it’s a child, the line becomes blurred. And yet, that’s the hand City of God deals us.

The film begins briefly in Rio de Janeiro where the chase of an on-the-run-from-slaughter chicken evades a local gang of kids long enough to run directly into Rocket, our main character and narrator. We then flashback to a small, poor village on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. Goose (Rocket’s brother), Shaggy, and Clipper are three local thieves who have self-dubbed themselves the “Tender Trio.” Acting in a Robin Hood fashion, the trio steal from local businesses and share their loot with the citizens. Li’l Dice is another local boy from the favela, and though he’s much younger than the “Tender Trio,” he soon proves that his capacity for violence is unmatched.

Li’l Ze (Leandro Firmino, R) waves his gun at a kid offscreen.

Eventually (after a few twists and robberies-gone-wrong that I don’t want to spoil), the film flashes forward ten years. Li’l Dice is now known as Li’l Ze, and along with another boy, Benny, he’s established a drug empire in Rio de Janeiro by killing off all his enemies. For the moment, a relative peace has fallen over the city, as drug wars have subsided with only one kingpin in town. But this isn’t a film about peace and tranquility, and as ego’s rise, empires fall. With vicious consequences.

Could photography be Rocket’s (Alexandre Rodrigues) escape from the favelas?

Caught in the middle of all this is Rocket, who’s now part of the “groovies” – a hippie youth group that enjoys smoking weed on the beach and not much else. Rocket has also taken to photography, lugging his camera around with him everywhere and snapping pictures of whatever interests him, which most of the time, is the pretty girl in his group.

Not all children wield guns, but most find themselves in their sights.

Later on, an opportunity presents itself to Rocket. Li’l Ze is mad that despite his city-wide control of the drug game, he’s still ignored by the press. Just like Al Capone, Li’l Ze won’t believe that he’s made it until his face graces the front page of the newspaper. And thus the storylines of Rocket and Li’l Ze merge, and just like ordering furniture online, it’s nice when everything comes together.

Not what the typical front lines look like in war.

Despite the fact that City of God does not feature any famous directors or actors, it still received four Academy Award nominations: Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and Best Film Editing. This isn’t not just one of the best foreign films you’ll see, it’s one of the best film’s you’ll ever see. You won’t recognize a single person on screen, but the setting, paired with its distinctive tone will make City of God one film you’ll never forget.


Joe Brosnan is an editor and writer for Criminal Element who graduated from Marist College. He spends his time obsessing equally over the Game of Thrones series and the New York Giants, and is only now realizing how weird it is to write in the third person. You can follow him on Twitter @joebro33.

Read all of Joe Brosnan's posts for Criminal Element.

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