Winning honors and awards around the world, nominated for four Oscars, garnering praise from practically every critic who saw it, and playing in American art houses for over a year and half after its initial release, the 2002 Brazilian/French/American coproduction "City of God" should have made more money. Yet it took in only a little over $7,000,000 at the box office in all that time, hardly enough to pay the caterers had this been a big Hollywood production, though enough to double its own minuscule budget. Maybe it was the somber, depressing, unrelenting subject matter that scared audiences away; I don't know. The important thing at the moment is that DVD allows people another chance to see this emotionally gripping if ultimately frustrating motion picture.
"City of God" is based on the true-life experiences of a Brazilian who grew up in the Rio de Janeiro suburb of Cidade de Deus (City of God), a low-income housing project built in the 1960s several miles outside the city, a project that soon became a drug-infested slum and gangland haven. To grow up there was to experience firsthand the horrors of poverty, murder, and corruption almost on a daily basis.
The film was written by Braulio Mantovani from a novel by Paulo Lins, who presumably represents the fictional main character, Buscape (Alexandre Rodriques), nicknamed "Rocket" and later called Wilson Rodrigues, take your pick, a boy we see grow up in the projects and through his sheer good nature and perseverance turn from a life of drugs and crime into a professional photographer and news reporter. Rocket narrates the story, which switches around among any number of characters, mostly slum kids, over several years, with all of the stories eventually interconnecting.
The movie has a low-budget, documentary feel to it as it describes its action in the style of an American gangland thriller, a "Scarface" or "Goodfellas," but with an even greater sense of reality behind it. Indeed, the film is so brutally realistic, as I say, its violence may be what kept any number of potential viewers away from movie houses. In any case, there is apparently nothing in the film that didn't actually take place in the seventies and eighties in this part of the world, and the cautions the film brings with it can be applied to virtually any impoverished area. With poverty come ignorance and desperation, conditions complicated when governments look the other way.
The movie is divided into half a dozen or more separate stories, all of them independently titled, all of them told in various modes of flashback, and all of them coming together in the end. The first tale is "The Story of the Tender Trio," an account of Rocket's older brother and his friends, who become amateur thieves and robbers in the City of God and surrounding environs. The Cidade de Deus housing project was doomed to failure from the beginning, and the city fathers didn't seem to care. Many families were left homeless due to flooding and arson; there were no paved streets, no electricity, no public transportation. It was, as Rocket says, "as far from the picture postcard Rio de Janeiro" as one could get. When the three young men rob a whorehouse and a number of people wind up dead, Rocket's brother goes into hiding.
The stories are all hard hitting and depressing, none of them intended for the squeamish, to be sure. The movie is not meant to be entertaining in the conventional sense, and there are no actors of star caliber to lighten the mood; yet it's hard not to get caught up in the dilemmas Rocket faces on a daily basis and the terrors everyone faces in such a hell hole.
The next segments, "The Story of the Apartment," "The Story of Li'l Ze," "A Sucker's Life," "Flirting With Crime," "Bene's Farewell," "The Story of Knockout Ned," and "The Beginning of the End," take us step by step through Rocket's entrance first into the world of crime and then, accidentally and ironically, into the world of photography and crime reporting.
Most of the supporting characters are vivid and vile, the scariest thing being that they're all young, teens mostly but some as young as eight or ten. "Kill and be respected" is their byword, so they all wield guns from the youngest to the oldest, and bloodshed is their way of life, an accepted behavior. People like Li'l Ze (Leondro Firmino), the drug lord who runs the city; Bene (Phellipe Haagensen), a drug underling; Angelica (Alice Braga), the girl everybody wants; Carrot (Matheus Nachtergale), a rival gangster; and Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge), a peace-loving ex-soldier who becomes a hero in the ghetto when he comes in conflict with Li'l Ze, all contribute to a world we don't want to know about but realize exists everywhere.
"City of God" is not a comfortable picture, but it is an important one. Director Fernando Meirelles and co-director Katia Lund are to be commended for bringing it in on so low a budget yet with such flavor and vitality, varying their cinematic technique almost from shot to shot in creating an unforgettable portrait of a despicable existence, where drugs are everywhere and children murder one another with abandon. The movie will not be everyone's idea of a good time, but given a chance, the movie cannot be ignored.
Because the film was made on a low budget and was meant to look in part like documentary footage, the image quality of the DVD transfer is probably as good as its theatrical-exhibition appearance. The 1.85:1 screen dimensions here show up as approximately 1.75:1 across a standard television, and the anamorphic rendering helps to ensure that the director's intentions are upheld. Still, the picture is dark, glassy, and somewhat blurred most of the time. Colors are generally vivid, but nothing is too well defined. The general murkiness of the video is not much different from a typical cable TV broadcast, but, then, it wasn't meant to be.
The movie's Dolby Digital 5.1 sound is much better than its video, with a strong, wide, dynamic impact in the front channels and good, discrete channel separation in the surrounds. All of the channels are well utilized, in fact, with bullets flying from all angles; and not just from the front and rear, but from points in between as well. It's all very dramatic as well as adding to the verisimilitude of the goings on.
The disc only includes one important bonus item, the fifty-six minute documentary, "News From a Personal War," but it's enough to confirm that everything in the film really happened and pretty much in exactly the way depicted. The documentary is a bleak reminder of man's failure to care overmuch for his fellow man, showing us the real-life problems in Rio with drugs corrupting everyone everywhere--the rich, the poor, the government, and the police alike. The disc also includes some Sneak Peeks at other Miramax releases and twenty-five scene selections. The only spoken language available is the film's original Brazilian Portuguese, but subtitles are provided in English, French, and Spanish, with English captions for the hearing impaired. Unfortunately, the English subtitles sometimes whiz by so quickly they're hard to follow without missing some of the action on screen, so the pause and back buttons on the remote come in handy. Moreover, the spelling and grammar of the subtitles aren't always correct, adding further distractions.
Clearly, "City of God" is meant as a wake-up call to people everywhere, because we can see that crime and corruption are prevalent everywhere. But the frustration is that so long as people look the other way, sweep things under the rug, or, worse, go along with and profit by perversity, the killing will never stop. It's a grim epitaph for hypocrisy, and the film provides no comfortable answers for solving any of the problems it so well describes.