xmas then and now
hanging with juan

#20: city of god (fernando meirelles and kátia lund, 2002)

(This is the 31st of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)

This one’s a lesson in the value of projects like ours. Some years ago, a friend recommended this to me, but I didn’t get around to it until several years later. My friend was right; this is a great movie. So as you read our lists, remember that some of the ones you haven’t seen might turn out to be one of your favorites, too.

It’s a relatively non-judgmental film. It doesn’t spend much time beating you over the head with a moral, so if you look to pop culture for such things, you’ll probably think of City of God as amoral and too excited by its subject matter (young gangs in the favelas of Rio). It’s not that City of God is a straightforward representation of life in the Brazilian slums, any more than Mean Streets is a straightforward representation of life in Little Italy. There are too many showy stylistic maneuvers to call it “straightforward.” But it feels honest (not that I have the slightest idea of what life is really like in places like the City of God). I don’t think it glorifies the gangsters … it’s dazzling, but usually in depressing ways, and from my comfortable middle-class American perspective, at least, I can hardly imagine anyone seeing City of God and thinking “cool, I want to be like these kids.”

The film doesn’t offer much in the way of easy explanations or hopefulness, and that’s a problem for some. It is influenced by many earlier films, some of which have been commented on, in particular Goodfellas (this is like a kid’s Brazilian version of that movie). I was reminded of The Harder They Come, and Season Four of The Wire, which also deals with slum kids. But the real connection I saw was between this movie and Menace II Society, in particular the character of O-Dog, played by Larenz Tate, in the latter. I don’t know if I’d ever seen a movie character that so effectively combined amoral psychopathic behavior with charisma. But the character Li’l Dice (later Li’l Ze) in City of God makes O-Dog look like a wussy. When the 11–year-old Dice commits his first murder (and his second, and third, and on and on as he wipes out most of a sex hotel), the glee in his crazy laughter is scary as shit.

Some have argued that there is no “point” to the film, that it merely turns violence into spectacle. It’s not that I disagree, but that scene (and a few others) say more about the casual worthlessness of life in the favelas than any “point” the film makers could make.


There were only a couple of comments for this one, with one person noting the beautiful cinematography.


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