Few movies attain the greatness of a genuinely profound experience that lingers on permanently in the cultural consciousness. Films like The Seventh Seal, Citizen Kane, or Ikiru, to arbitrarily list a few, are the treasured exceptions to the thousands of films that come and go over the years, largely forgotten. But the immediacy and impact of film as a medium often delivers an image or a scene that, even in a less than great movie, etches itself deeply into memory.
City of God, a Brazilian film based on a best-selling novel (in turn based on a true story), has two scenes that linger long after the rest of the film starts to fade. In its opening sequence, a lively street market scene, director Fernando Meirelles shows a knife being sharpened, a chicken slaughtered and plucked. Then a second chicken escapes its leg-tether and runs for its life. A mob of street kids pursues. The chase goes on for some minutes, including a dance between the chicken and an oncoming car. Finally, the chicken’s plight segues seamlessly into a bigger drama, human conflict that is at the center of the film. The sequence is fast, lively, and pointed, too, and it gets the adrenaline flowing in a film that rarely lets up the pace over its better than two hour running time. That chicken won’t soon be forgotten.
City of God traces the history of a slum neighborhood (a favela – and no less a slum for being public housing) through the stories of street kids who grow into drug-dealing, murderous gangsters. They start with guns and drugs while still prepubescent, even then wisely discussing the hierarchy of the gangs, how one progresses from being a delivery boy on up the ladder. They observe as one of the key players, L’il Ze, bypasses the hierarchy and, in a rage of killings, simply obliterates the existing top guys and takes over the entire drug trade of the favela.
The history is seen through the eyes of Rocket, who manages to avoid the action and the conflicts of his peers. He’s a photographer and, since no outsiders would risk their lives to shoot in the favela, he gets exclusive pictures of the slaughters and of his friend L’il Ze, who basks in the notoriety of making the news. Photography is Rocket’s road out of the favela; for the others, there’s no road out and there’s no avoiding the violence. "If you run, they get you; if you don’t run, they get you," says one dispiritedly. It becomes clear that most of these kids are illiterate, too.
As the history is traced, the camera witnesses a variety of crimes, from a holdup of a whore house that turns into a slaughter by a laughing child to hijacking of gas trucks, to countless murders with the ever-present guns. After a while, it becomes somewhat numbing, if not repetitious, but the lively camerawork (much of it handheld) and fast cutting from director Meirelles keeps the momentum in high gear.
And then Mierelles delivers the second sequence that, in addition to the chicken episode, is an utterly unforgettable moment–and breaks through any desensitization of the audience. L’il Ze is after a gang of gun-wielding young kids who are disobeying his rules of conduct. Two of the kids are cornered in an alley; L’il Ze hands a gun to a young member of his gang who is anxious to prove his manhood, and then offers the now whimpering trapped child a choice of getting shot in the hand or in the foot. In that moment, the sense of play-acting and the dehumanizing effects of the overload of violence all of a sudden take on again a pathetically human face.
This is a first feature film for Meirelles, who has been a successful producer of television commercials. His sophistication with the camera, editing, and pacing keeps City of God moving along, even when it seems to repeat itself and run off on tangents. His editing makes it possible to follow a complicated story, but there are so many characters over such an extended period of time that most of them remain undifferentiated. And the two leads, who do become recognizable characters, are not drawn in enough depth to make a lasting impression or to make one care about them individually.
What remains, then, is a portrait of life at the bottom, in communal rather than in individual terms. But it is a portrait full of life and telling detail, from a cop who says, "Since when is stealing from niggers and thieves a crime?" to a man forced at gunpoint to strip in the middle of a disco party. It’s no wonder this film has broken box office records in Brazil.