How “City of God” transcends traditional crime film
The detective genre is undoubtedly one of the most popular in all of cinema. The fun of rooting for the so called “bad guys” as the main character is a different experience from many. The most popular crime subgenre is the gangster movie, and for obvious reasons. We are happy to see them breaking the rules that we would never dare to break ourselves to be rewarded with money, women and all kinds of power. More importantly, they are usually seen stopping at the end, a necessary reminder not to follow the same paths.
The best offhand examples are “Goodfellas”, “Casino”, “Scarface” and, to a fairly generous extent, both “Pulp Fiction” and “The Godfather.” Beyond these movies, gangsters from almost every movie genre are portrayed to live the aforementioned lifestyle. These titles are also considered among the best of their genre, but there is one film in the genre that is often overlooked as the best of the bunch. Probably overlooked because it is a foreign film, the Brazilian film “City of God” (2002) is one of the most poignant but thrilling crime films ever made.
It’s a completely different movie from the American crime movie. As America romanticizes the idea of being a gangster, director Fernando Meirelles only shows the pitfalls. Like ‘Goodfellas’, it’s also a true story but there are few to no overlapping similarities. The most important distinction between ‘City of God’ and other crime films is the location, which in this case, are the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. Beyond the beach, there is essentially nothing naturally beautiful about the location and the dangerous street life only adds even more darkness. The slums are run by young gangsters, almost all between the ages of 11 and 25, and are far more vicious than most American adult movie gangsters could wish to be.
Cinema mapping on YouTube best describes the film as an “open world film” and there’s no better way to put it. Although we have a “main” character, Rocket, he functions more as a spokesperson for the City of God itself rather than his own story. We don’t just follow Rocket’s plot, but we discover so many different characters and intertwined intrigues through him, because they are all equally important. While this may be shocking in other movies with conventional structures, this is what makes “City of God” work so well. Each scene always involves at least two important characters, developing several plots at the same time. With this, each character’s plot will always affect that of another, highlighting how connected everything is in the favela.
This is actually achieved by Rocket’s role in the story. He’s beloved enough by all the gangs and social groups in town for his talents as a photographer that he’s able to tell the full story of times he wasn’t even there. While we know he’ll be through the movie, the spread of the main characters and the fact that no one is ever safe adds tension to whether or not he will survive. This further adds to the audience’s role as a character, as at any point we know our main lifeline for information and security could be broken. We feel like at any time our protagonist can be taken and we are left to fend for ourselves without a moral center like all of Rocket’s peers.
Each character affects each other in such a constant way that revenge plays a major role in many subplots. With every character we see going up, we see another going down and they’re still intertwined. Rocket’s older brother Goose is the first man we learn to root for and as he’s about to mend his life, Lil Ze ‘kills him and rises to the top over time. Lil Ze ‘is the absolutely terrifying villain and kills many innocent people throughout the story, perpetuating the pure to become corrupt. Everyone Who Dies affects the plot of those who are alive, maintaining a constant, vengeful cycle of how violence came to be. Even with the final resolution, we know other gangs will continue the violence they so wanted to avoid in the first place.
Beyond the characters and structure, cinematography and editing are just as important in conveying the energy of the story. From the first moments, we are immersed in a fast cutting with a shaking camera and this energy is maintained throughout the film. Nothing is stable in the City of God, and POV-style camera work immerses audiences in character, with little to no visual objectivity beyond established shots. The jagged camera work and blatant cinematography underline the constant tension of the slums. Even the most relaxed moments have internal stress because we know they are just fragments of peace lost in a sea of uproar. While the natural surroundings are not very beautiful, the film is shot as if it were. The angles are well chosen and the framing is perfect. Cinematography and editing play a major role in emphasizing that the city is the main character.
“City of God” stands out among gangster films, and even most films in general for its storytelling methods. Focusing on so many characters instead of just one effectively tells the story of a city in which no one is fortunate enough to live fully. Everyone is developed as much as they need to be because the lifespan is so limited. The violence is purely horrific, almost nothing is spared and looks just as real as it really is. Few directors have been as daring as Meirelles in telling this story before or since, making ‘City of God’ a true masterpiece.