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City of God Print E-mail
Tuesday, 08 June 2004

City Of God

Miramax Home Entertainment
MPAA rating: R
starring: Matheus Nachtergaele, Alexandre Rodrigues, Leandro Firmino Da Hora, Jonathan Haagensen, Phellipe Haagensen, Douglas Silva, Daniel Zettel and Seu Jorge
release year: 2003
film rating: Four Stars
sound/picture: Two-and-a-Half Stars
reviewed by: Paul Lingas

An intriguing, warm, funny and frightening look at the violent slums of Rio de Janeiro, “City of God” was last year’s critical favorite in the foreign film category. It tells the story of Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), a well-meaning youth who has dreams of being a professional photographer. Unfortunately, he has lived all of his life in the City of God, what the slums of Rio were originally called. The City of God is marked by drugs and violence, both among the different groups and gangs of drug dealers and between all of them and the police.
While the story begins in the present, Rocket quickly takes us back in time to when the slum was first created and crime became rampant from the outset. We are introduced to a trio of young men who are bent on robbery and general intimidation, though they tend to leave those who live in the City of God alone. Tired of the small time, they decide to rob a city hotel with a 10-year-old want-to-be gangster named Li’l Dice (Douglas Silva), who ends up going crazy and killing a bunch of the hotel guests that the other three just robbed. Accused of this heinous crime, the three, including Rocket’s older brother, are forced to go into hiding both within and outside the slum.

As we skip ahead to the future, Rocket is hanging out, trying to stay out of trouble while wooing the popular and beautiful Angélica (Alice Braga). Rocket is also trying to start a career as a photographer, but it is slow going. Now that everyone is grown up, Li’l Dice has changed his name to Li’l Ze (Leandro Firmino Da Hora) and is trying to take over the entire drug trade in the slum while upgrading it from marijuana to cocaine. Li’l Ze, along with his lifelong friend Benny (Phellipe Haagensen), uses violence to remove every competitor except for Carrot (Matheus Nachtergaele). What ensues is a somewhat tenuous peace between the two factions, and all of the slum’s inhabitants are made to deal with it as best they can. Life goes on in the City of God and Rocket tries to get his career going by working at a local paper. Violence escalates and deescalates, involving adults, drug dealers, children, and occasionally, the police, with Li’l Ze continuing to be an extremely violent and volatile boss. As the peace ends, Rocket uses his photographic skills to expose the problems in the City of God to the outside world, being in effect our eyes and ears to the terrors that place holds.

The film cleverly uses Rocket as a mechanism to tell the story of the City of God, the joys and horrors of it since its inception. The film is presented in a stark yet beautiful light, which is able to effectively convey both the wonders and horrors of the situation that people still find themselves in, living within a city, Rio, which is considered to be one of the most beautiful in the world. The writing and acting is sincere and powerful, and it comes across as a modern Brazilian gangster film, filled with colorful and heartbreaking characters. The difference between this film and most gangster films is that even at their worst, these people still have next to nothing when compared to life outside the slums. It is easy to see why this is considered by many to be one of the 10 best films of 2003.

In terms of special features, this DVD is lacking in most areas. One trailer for the film is included, as well as trailers for a few other Miramax titles. The solitary gem of the special features is a fine 60-minute documentary about the slums of Rio. Titled “News From a Personal War,” the documentary includes interviews from as recently as 1997, which include Paulo Lins, the reporter upon whose book the film is based, the chief of Rio’s police department at the time, as well as interviews with police officers and members of the slums who fight a day to day battle with anything from pistols to heavy automatic weapons. To know that “City of God” is based on a true story only partially brings the full impact of what has been happening in the slums of Rio for the last 30 or so years. This is an excellent documentary, shot and edited expertly to the greatest and most far-ranging effect. The documentary alone makes the DVD worth having.

Shot in an irreverent, almost documentary style, the cinematography on “City of God” is nevertheless stunning and often quite beautiful. The picture is good but there appear to be transfer artifacts now and again. Whether this is a result of the original lab or the transfer itself is up to conjecture. The sound quality is surprisingly good for a film that has a guerilla feel to it. Presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, the mix uses all channels to maximum effect to immerse the viewer in the sounds of the slums. It also allows the unpolluted enjoyment of listening to the singsong of Brazilian Portuguese.

A critic and viewer favorite, “City of God” is an excellently fashioned and heartbreakingly honest portrayal of life and death within the slums of Rio de Janeiro, a city where the proximity of rich and poor to one another is closer than almost anywhere else in the world. This DVD, while lacking in show, has what counts, a good film with a decent transfer and an excellent accompanying documentary.

more details
sound format:
Brazilian Portuguese Dolby Digital 5.1
aspect ratio(s):
1.85:1, Enhanced for Widescreen TVs
special features: “News from a Personal War” Documentary; Theatrical Trailers; English, French and Spanish Subtitles
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Panasonic DVD-XP50
receiver: Denon AVR-3802
main speakers: Polk RT 600i
center speaker: Polk CS 400i
rear speakers: Polk S4
monitor: 43” Sony KP-43HT20

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