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  • Writer's pictureJames Rutherford

‘City of God’: A Forceful and Explosive Chronicle of Criminality in the Favelas of Rio de Janeiro

Movie poster for the Brazilian film City of God starring Alexandre Rodrigues and Leandro Firmino

City of God (Cidade de Deus) (2002) is an epic and extraordinary depiction of life in the favela of Rio de Janeiro, told largely from the perspective of central figures Buscapé AKA “Rocket” (Alexandre Rodrigues) and Zé Pequeno AKA “Li'l Dice” (Leandro Firmino).

Beginning in the 1960's, Rocket narrates his childhood on the outskirts of Rio, his family's meager subsistence overshadowed by the criminal exploits of his older brother “Goose” (Renato de Souza) and Goose's cadre of criminal accomplices—Li'l Dice amongst them. When a hotel robbery goes terribly awry and the older criminals are forced to flee, Li'l Dice fully embraces his opportunity to become the new crime boss of the favela—while Rocket channels all of his energy into his burgeoning passion for photography.

As the storyline progresses into the 1970’s, the newly dubbed “Li'l Zé” has become a fully-fledged shot caller while Rocket has held fast to the straight-and-narrow, devoting himself into his work as a photographer while steadfastly avoiding Li'l Zé at all costs. Li'l Zés fervent hunger for power and control of the ghetto drug trade inevitably leads him and his forces to all-out war with opposing factions lead by the resolute “Knockout Ned” (Seu Jorge), a former military marksman hellbent on revenge for his brother’s murder. Following his own path, Rocket finds professional success at a local newspaper through his exclusive photojournalistic access to the favela—where his life ultimately converges inextricably with that of Li’l Ze and his all-out campaign of mayhem.

Shot in an urgent and kaleidoscopic manner by directors Fernando Meirelles (The Constant Gardener) and Kátia Lund (City of Men)—with a huge lift from cinematographer César Charlone (American Made)—City of God is a savagely violent exposé of wayward lives on the fringes of society. Illustrating their desperation and moral desertion so distinctly, the film brings a full cinematic vision to a harsh and often distressing story of bloodshed and destruction. It's a provocative and incendiary experience not to be missed, nor soon to be forgotten.


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