2003 / Best Director

Film #538: City of God (2003)

One thing that Every Nominee allows me to do is rewatch films which I really enjoy but I wouldn’t get a chance to see normally. This is especially true of the next film on my list Ferdinando Merielles’ City of God, which is one of my favourite movies of all time although it’s one that you do need to be in the right mood to watch. That’s primarily because City of God deals with the Brazilian underworld and features bucket loads of violence including the murder of several young children.

That being said City of God never glamorises the violence which runs throughout it and by the end of the film the majority of the antagonists are either dead or in jail. The only real hero of the film is its narrator Rocket, an inhabitant of the favela of the title which is an area far away from Rio de Janeiro and has very little electricity or running water. The film is told in three acts, often in flashback, with Rocket explaining how each character came to be in the situation they are in with specific focus on the area’s key gangster Li’l Zé. In the 1960s we see Zé as Little Dice who tags along with the criminal threesome known as The Tender Trio whose members include Rocket’s brother Goose. After a haunting opening robbery of a motel, we quickly see The Tender Trio leave the City of God one way or another which allows Zé and his friend Benny to eventually monopolise the area’s drug trade. The 1970’s scenes are more colourful than those that have gone before as we see Rocket aspiring to be a photographer and Benny considering leaving his life of crime behind. However a major death sees a number of events lead to a full out war between Zé and rival drug deal Carrot which dominates the final 1980’s set act of the film. All the meanwhile Rocket is our guide to an area where he has tried to evade either joining a gang or getting shot himself, something he manages by coming the de facto photographer for Zé and his gang.

There’s so many things to like about City of God I don’t know where to start by the style alone is so different from anything else that I can think of. Meirelles is able to conjure about whole world in the film that feels almost mystical as we see all these young men kill each other for no particular reason other than revenge. The cinematography and editing of the City of God makes it feel like an action movie and rightfully both César Charlone and Daniel Rezende were Oscar nominated for their work on the film. Also Oscar nominated was Braulio Mantovani, whose adaptation of Paulo Lins’ book was fantastic as the movie gripped me from the word go. Despite it’s changing setting, eras and large cast of characters, City of God’s story never lost me and I think that’s a testament to Mantovani’s script. Additionally I think it was a work of genius to have the sympathetic and believable Rocket narrating the story as he acts as a way in to the audience as he like us is slightly separated from the rest of the action. As Rocket, I felt that Alexandre Rodrigues was perfect in the role of the young man who doesn’t want to end up the same way his late brother did. But the best performance in City of God came from Leandro Firmino da Hora who made Li’l Zé into a charismatic and memorable crime lord who would shoot you just for bumping into him. Da Hora also made sure that Li’l Zé wasn’t just a one-dimensional character and I personally enjoyed the scene in which we saw him awkwardly standing at the edge of the dancefloor in a club waiting to ask a girl to dance. I was astonished to learn that all but one of the actors in City of God were non-professionals with Meirelles having held opening casting calls for local youngsters, some from the area itself. This is baffling as almost every performance in City of God is fantastic so much so that I was a little annoyed that not one cast member was nominated for an acting Oscar.

I do feel a couple of Oscar nominations for a foreign language film would propel many people to see it and the fact that City of God garnered nods in some of the major categories meant that it got more exposure than if it hadn’t featured heavily at the awards. Oddly the film wasn’t nominated in the Foreign Language Film Category possibly as the Academy felt it may have got a Best Picture shot. I do think it’s a shame that City of God came out in the year of Return of the King which swept the board that year and made it hard for any other film to win an Oscar. But I do still contend that City of God should have received a nod over the only film not to get a Best Director nomination that being the forgettable horsey drama Seabiscuit. To this day I’m not sure why Seabiscuit received a Best Picture nomination over some much worthier contenders and I do feel that the presence of City of God would’ve made 2003’s top prize seem more prestigious. Overall though I don’t think awards matter to a film like City of God which thankfully has seen the test of time and one that I would recommend anyone to go out of their way to watch.

Our mini odyssey through World Cinema concludes next time as we take a trip back to France in 1994 and a world of bubblegum billboards and resentful judges.

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