the review site with a difference since 1999
Reviews Interviews Articles Apps About

Miramax Pictures presents

City of God (2002)

"Having a hood as your brother sucks. You always end up footing the bill."- Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues)

Stars: Matheus Nachtergaele, Alexandre Rodrigues
Director: Fernando Meirelles

MPAA Rating: R for strong brutal violence, sexuality, drug content and language
Run Time: 02h:09m:36s
Release Date: 2004-06-08
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A B+B+A- B


DVD Review

Take a look at the DVD cover for City of God, and you'll find one of the most daunting pull quotes—Roger Ebert, master of the thumb, calls it "One of the best films you'll ever see." Hyperbole seems to come with the territory in film criticism (I plead guilty to this myself, on a couple of occasions), but with Ebert, we're talking about one of the most influential (and reasonably respected) people writing about movies today. So if you haven't seen the movie, your instinct is probably the same as mine: it's time to start tamping down your expectations. If you go in expecting this to be Grand Illusion or something, you're likely to suffer a letdown—in short, don't believe the hype. But if you can shut yourself out from the noise of the critical apparatus, what you'll find here is a kinetic, galvanizing, deeply felt bit of filmmaking.

The title refers to the notorious slums of Rio de Janeiro, in which almost all of the action takes place—it's a movie with some obvious antecedents, like GoodFellas and Boyz N the Hood. But calling City of God merely a Brazilian spin on the gangster coming-of-age picture is overly reductive, as is equating director Fernando Meirelles' filmmaking style with that of someone like Guy Ritchie, in Snatch mode. In many ways, though, it is a fairly conventional gangster story, following a group of boys from childhood through adolescence and into early adulthood, tracking their interactions with guns, drugs, women, crime, and one another. Meirelles works with a huge canvas, and a vast array of characters; they're all individuated reasonably well, but you get the strong sense that he's more interested in showing us this community, this subculture, this way of life, rather than following a single straightforward storyline.

Our hero of sorts is Rocket—several actors play him at various ages, but the best and most extensive work is by Alexandre Rodrigues, when Rocket, on the verge of manhood, wants to be a photojournalist, and not a hood. The film wisely avoids all the clichés of the Big Ticket Out of the Slums, but Rocket's alienation from his neighborhood is powerful—violence is all he knows and all he's seen, his family has paid a terrible price, but his sense of wanting something else, even if he isn't sure quite what, is palpable. The obvious contrast to him is Li'l Dice, who starts as a baby gangster; when his taste for killing makes him the City of God alpha male, he changes his street name to Li'l Zé, and he's played menacingly by Leandro Firmino da Hora. He's got the lunatic menace of Tommy de Vito, and seems to look to Tony Montana as a role model; of course, in his own heart, he thinks of himself not only as omnipotent, but as misunderstood. The most palpable instance is at what's supposed to be a farewell party for one of Li'l Zé's crew, who with his girlfriend is getting out of the life to live on a farm and smoke spliffs; Li'l Zé is losing his friend, and strikes out with all the girls, so of course the evening has to end with someone else's humiliation and with violence; they're all he knows, they're all he's good at.

But the priorities of these guys have been clear from the jump, and some sinuously visual filmmaking makes that explicit—the best instance of this may be when a couple of the guys decide against holding up a lunch counter, because the waitress is so cute and interested; minutes later, one of them takes the napkin on which she's written her phone number and uses it as rolling paper for his next joint, any hope of connecting with the girl going literally up in smoke. The film pushes on to the inevitable bloody climax, a showdown in the City of God between rival factions; what's most upsetting is not the violence itself (which has been part of the fabric of the film from the first frame), but rather the rise of the Runts, the next wave of City of God hoods, a bunch of little boys who should probably be in third grade, not marauding the streets with automatic weapons. The visual style of the film always makes it worth watching, and even if the movie doesn't forge a whole lot of new ground, it is made with passion, energy, and a continuously pulsing sense of menace.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Some of the handheld camera work can be a little nauseous, and the colors sometimes bleed into one another; but the transfer to DVD is strong, with full saturation and a clean image quality.

Image Transfer Grade: B+

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: The ping of gunfire fills up the surround speakers; my only quarrel with the audio is that in a couple of scenes the source music is outrageously loud. Then again, can you ever have the volume up too high when the song is Kung Fu Fighting?

Audio Transfer Grade: A- 

Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 25 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
3 Other Trailer(s) featuring The Magdalene Sisters, Dirty Pretty Things, Miramax Home Entertainment highlights
1 Documentaries
Packaging: Amaray
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: The single noteworthy extra here is News From a Personal War (56m:37s), a documentary filmed in 1997 and 1998 about drug trafficking in the slums of Rio; it seems to have served as something of a sketchpad for the feature. The rampant, out-of-control Brazilian drug war is terrifying, and the focus is a little wider here, featuring not only dealers, but terrorized residents and well-intentioned but largely impotent honest police officers.

Extras Grade: B

Final Comments

A passionate film with style to burn and a pungent point of view, City of God is frequently harrowing, and almost always memorable.

Jon Danziger 2004-06-09