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Review: City of God

Directed by Kátia Lund and Fernando Meirelles.
Starring Alexandre Rodrigues, Leandro Firmino da Hora, Phellipe Haagensen, and Douglas Silva.

Films like City of God are hard to recommend. In its company, I would include Amor es Perros and Requiem for a Dream: they are brutal, heart-wrenching movies to watch, let alone enjoy, though undeniably well-written, well-acted, and well-filmed.

City of God, a 2004 Academy Award nominee for Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Film Editing, and Best Cinematography, is the “based on a true story” tale of an aspiring photographer, Buscapé (Alexandre Rodrigues), centering largely on his relationship with Little Zé (the riveting Leandro Firmino da Hora), a demented childhood acquaintance who becomes a psychopathic crime lord of a slum outside of Rio de Janeiro.

How close to the truth City of God is, I can’t say, but ultimately, it doesn’t really matter: as a film, the story works. Thanks in very large part to a Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund’s obvious rapport with their cast of non-professional actors, it feels real — occasionally so real that it’s painful to watch the events unfold on screen, perhaps most vividly in a haunting scene where a young boy is given a gun by Little Zé and instructed to shoot one of the two “Runts” in front of him.

At 130 minutes, City of God only occasionally feels a bit slow-going; most of the side-steps the film takes are welcome and provide a strong context for the main thrust of the story. Once the plot takes over in full force (you’ll recognize when it has immediately), it won’t let go until long after the movie has ended. Whether the reward of the film outweighs the difficult journey it takes you through is, I think, ultimately a matter of whether you enjoy these sorts of physically and emotionally draining, depressing movies — and generally speaking, I don’t. But the directors and some breathtaking work by a remarkable ensemble cast, make it a vivid, if occasionally harrowing, experience that only gets more rewarding upon reflection, and that’s pretty difficult to argue with.

City of God is available this month on DVD through Netflix and video stores everywhere. The film is shown in a widescreen anamorphic tranfer. The disc’s only special feature is a 56-minute documentary from the late ’90s, News from a Personal War, about the real-life City of God.

(Originally published at Gapers Block on September 3, 2004.)

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