Whenever it comes to cinema entertainment, the American public has an obsession with drug related crime dramas. Movies like “Goodfellas,” “Traffic,” and “Scarface” all owe at least some of their commercial success to the appeal that is the drug industry in movies. Many people rarely feel the effects of crime and gangs in their every day lives, so being able to see it on a movie screen makes it all the more interesting to the viewer. “City of God” is another movie that has its entertainment factor increased by this allure brought about by the topic of drugs and gang violence. Instead of taking place in America, however, this film takes place in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. The other main difference between this film and other films that pertain to the drug trade is that this film doesn’t glorify that particular industry as much. Yes, the film is entertaining in its brutality, but none of the characters are driving fancy cars and living in large mansions such as in “Scarface.” It is a means of survival and a way to obtain a sense of respect, rather than to rise to the upper echelons of society’s elite.
While drugs are the center theme upon which this film revolves, there are many other underlying themes of power, respect, maturity, and friendship scattered throughout an extremely layered plot, which, while complicated, is never overwritten. While the entertainment comes from the violence and unique setting of the film, what truly makes this film great are all the individuals stories of the various characters and being able to watch as each character grows and evolves with his surroundings. How each character interacts with power with which they have been given and the rise or decline in morality that comes with an increase in power makes for an extremely riveting character study.
The acting may not be superb, but it has a realistic amateurism to it that makes the film more relatable and that much more human in a sense. Having non-professional actors can sometimes put more heart and soul into a film, and “City of God” is a prime example of that effect working to full force. The film is also shot in a very unique way, with every shot seemingly filtered with a variety of orange or blue that adds to the almost surrealist feeling surrounding the characters and the city in which they reside. This lifestyle is foreign to us, and the production enhances that feeling even more. The production also makes it more fun and puts a slightly lighthearted atmosphere on a rather serious and emotionally brutal film that leaves little room for hope and a true sense of happiness.
The film aligns rather well with the themes of classic Italian neorealism in the sense that the events portrayed on screen are not sugar coated in anyway. The film is harsh, realistic, and extremely violent because it portrays what life in a drug-trapped world of Brazilian slums would feel like. This isn’t a movie that was made purely for entertainment purposes, but rather, it was to show the world what the conditions of some of the people, especially children, living in Brazil have to deal with each and every day. It is a vicious cycle of poverty and violence that is even more difficult to escape with the false promise that drug lords and gang members can provide to a young adolescent that has yet to fully experience being a mature adult. Being able to kill another person doesn’t make you mature, yet some of the characters in this film falsely prophesize that notion.
For criticisms sake, the movie does feel like it runs just a tiny bit longer than it should, although none of the events in the script ever feel forced. It is filled with so much horror and disturbing content that it can be tough to take much away from the film other than the brutality of it all since most of the other emotions tend to be completely overrun by the feeling of shock that is experienced. Despite this though, the film is incredibly realistic and makes it a movie that, while painful to watch, is always engaging and feels much more relatable than other drug crime dramas that have been released in recent years.
City of God (2001): 4/4 stars