You need more than guts to be a good gangster, you need ideas.
Told from the perspective of and narrated by in Portuguese by 'Rocket' (Alexandre Rodrigues), and beginning with what I found to be an amusing scene of a chicken watching other chickens be butchered in a 'favela' (a ghetto, basically, of Rio), it literally gets that look on its face of "screw this, I'm getting outta here!", which leads to a gang of kidults (a term I made up for children who think they are adults), surprisingly armed with weapons, chasing the chicken around the the favela until it runs into Rocket, who is between the gang and police as he tries to grab the chicken. The film then backtracks to the 60's, and Rocket introduces us to the "Tender Trio", which involves his brother Goose, Shaggy, and Clipper, local hooligans who are popular with people for acting like the Robin Hoods of their favela by holding up gas trucks that come through their town. On the suggestion of Li'l Dice (played ruthlessly by both child actor Douglas Silva, and Leandro Firmino da Hora), they decide to hold up a motel/whor*house, and from the aftermath of this go separate paths in life, feeling that the heist was too intense for them. But through this event, Li'l Dice is transformed into the monster he is, as he brutally gunned down most of the motel 'patrons', disturbingly shown. The film then fast forwards several years, as Li'l Dice and Rocket are young adults, with Dice in fairly firm control of most of the criminal aspects of Rio at this point by his brutal, no nonsense way of dominating others to his will (with a nod to Godfather, by knocking off virtually all of his competition), and Rocket aspiring to be a photographer/journalist, chronicling Dice's gang activities. Whew. Writing all that makes the film seem complicated, but it's actually very straightforward, and is not without its irony in the end (solidifying its status for me).
What the film benefits from most is its mostly unknown cast, besides a young Alice Braga (known more for the recent Predators, but bringing a lot more warmth and depth to her role here). A lot of the actors and actresses in the film were literally picked off the streets of Rio to be in the movie, which in turn lends a sense of realism that cannot be gained by well known and conditioned actors. Many times in the movie it seems as if the director just allowed them to be themselves. The only American film I can think of comparing this to would be KIDS (Rosario Dawson's first film, and also featured a cast predominately of kids right off the mean streets of New York City), by Larry Clark. Both films get into the nitty gritty of inner city kidult life, and make zero apologies for the way they behave. They are allowed to breathe and tell their stories, however violent and politically incorrect they may be. For that, they have both tremendous respect from me, and my revulsion. While I can appreciate this realism, it also bothers me at a core level that there are children in this world that do truly behave in these fashions. You can call it whatever you like, products of their environment, just plain evil, but it is what it is, and neither film apologize nor glamorize these lifestyles, they just simply tell them.
And while City of God certainly has its fill of violence (this is NOT a movie for children to see, even though it features mostly children/young adults), it has its sense of humor, between the chicken scene I already referenced, and a way for bananas to sp*ce up your sex life, among others. This contrast to the drab world they live in keeps City of God from becoming overly depressing with its subject material, also elevating it above other crime sagas. I don't mind a serious movie, I expect it from a film like this, but its tendency to make you laugh between its griminess keeps it on a lighter note at the right moments.
Like the city itself, City of God is an intensely vibrantly colored film, with its rich yellows, greens, reds, and blues, between the architecture, clothes they wear, and the environment. While Li'l Dice makes his mark in his world, everything looks brilliant and earthy, as I would expect it to look being filmed in Brazil itself. And like a very select amount of movies, I don't mind the hand held camera work done throughout most of it, as it is panned out enough for me to see everything, and refrains for the most part from the overly shaking in an attempt to make things seem more dramatic.
With a script that doesn't even seem like it is even there because of everyone acting so naturally, a short run time for a crime epic (at 2 hours, 9 minutes), and scathing, sharp dialogue sometimes filled with expletives (although being in Portuguese, may not shock those that don't understand the language), City of God is an explosive, sun drenched foreign film that should be viewed by anyone that enjoys films with actual substance, subtleties, and criminal brutality. This is the seedy side of life, brilliantly told by our protagonist with humor at times, and one of my favorite films of the '00 decade.
With a follow up film and series that isn't directly related to City of God, City of Men, by the same creators (and some of the same actors), also showcased the favelas of Rio, and is also as violent and no nonsense as this was. I would certainly recommend both for your viewing pleasure. I hope that you've enjoyed my review!
(All words, ideas are mine. Plagiarizers are douchbags, don't be one. Any similarities to other reviews is complete coincidence).