“Favelas” is a word popularly used to describe the shantytowns of Rio de Janeiro. These places are not controlled by any state or federal agency. Rio’s favelas are located on the edge of the city, with houses spaced so closely that it feels like one big constellation of houses. Surely, the slums are like small outlets of underground economy, working within the supply-demand side of economics. Unlike the slums of Mumbai where legal manufacturing activities create jobs for many people, the “favelas” of Rio have pockets of housing sectors where drugs, guns, and violence are rampant, and they are homes to some of the most-dangerous criminals in Brazil. Certainly, the Rio’s slums create jobs, but they are illegal and risky, and the illicit businesses in the slums break every law possible. In fact, these slums were very unsafe back in the late 60s, making it impossible for anyone passing through without getting robbed or attacked by gangs.
Even now the place is a major headache for Brazil, and with the upcoming 2014 soccer World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games, the Brazilian law enforcement agencies have an uphill task to clean these slums, or at least quell the violence and crime rate. Of course, the “favelas” have Brazilian filmmakers’ attention, too, since this has been a national problem from the onset. The notable and popular flicks in the “favelas” genre, in my opinion, are “Elite Squad: The Enemy Within” (2011), “Elite Squad” (1997), “Raising Favelas” (2005), “Black Orpheus” (1959), and “City of God” (2002). Thematically, these films incorporate diverse filmmaking techniques, as they utilize differing points of view in narration to present Brazil’s ominous crime problems.
Fernando Meirelles’s “City of God” (2002) remains one of the gritty films about Rio’s favelas, playing completely from the characters born and raised in these slums. Based on a semi-autobiographical book by the same name written by Paulo Lins, “City of God” is brutally realistic in its depiction of life in Rio’s favelas. Told from the perspective of a young boy, and then as a grown-up man, Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues) lives in the slums, somehow managing to stay out of violence and gangs. He is a photographer for a local newspaper agency, but his journey to this point is not so simple. The film’s narrative structure is nonlinear for the most part, and it works as a set of several short montages coalesced together. Even when the film seems to have a lot of characters, with each montage dissecting a facet of life in the slums, the intertwining story lines mainly center around one gangster, Li’l Zé (Leandro Firmino da Hora). Director Meirelles creates a detailed character of Zé, providing insight into his childhood and his rise as the most-feared gangster in the Rio’s favelas. To show his calamitous lifestyle, the script injects other secondary characters that shape Zé’s identity. In a way, the story covers a lot of ground, covering both internal and external events and the impact of gang warfare on the lives of people living in the slums.
Zé’s best friend, Benny (Phellipe Haagensen), is a cerebral gangster, always thinking about Zé’s well-being from a personal as well as a business perspective. He is a reasonable guy, at least, in the gangster world, and when Zé is uncontrollable with wild vigor for violence at times, Benny acts as the voice of reason. Zé and Benny have been close friends since their childhood, and when Benny is mistakenly shot, Zé unleashes havoc, promising to kill everyone in the opposing gang, which is headed by Carrot (Matheus Nachtergaele). Then, we have Knockout Ned (Seu Jorge), who is forced to join Carrot’s gang when Zé kills Ned’s family. We also have other characters infiltrating the gangs to avenge bad things inflicted by other gangs. After all is said and done, a few characters might gain our sympathy, but as the stories unfold, we get a full picture of every situation, enabling us to judge the characters on the merit of their life situations and their responses. Of all the characters, Rocket is the odd man out, and that is why he escapes death at every step.
The film starts with a chicken-catching game, which also happens to be the film’s climax as well. But instead of letting the scene play itself out, Meirelles rapidly takes us back in time through the 60s and 70s in Rio’s favelas, explaining the whole thing leading up to the game. Surely, the game is a metaphor on gangsters, who at every single step are watchful and probably running away from someone. Their survival depends on how quickly they are able to traverse the course without getting killed. Whatever they manage to do, there will always be someone trying to grab them by the neck; the survival of the fittest best describes the life of a gangster. Zé succeeds in surviving the slums, but the game has brought him to a crossroads. He can either pursue the chicken or do nothing but at the same time be fully aware of his current setting.
Through Rocket, Meirelles’s script takes us through the lives of significant characters, beginning with their childhood. We learn Zé’s gun-loving attitude is not something he developed later in his life when he transformed into a gangster. Instead, we see he was fascinated by guns since early in his childhood. He took guns as a symbol of adulthood and also as a device that could grab everyone’s attention, specifically of adult gangsters. As we see other child players, we learn the young ones feel the pressure to impress the adults, and holding a gun makes them feel like a man. For adults who want to leave violence behind, there is always something that is eventually going to pull them back in. Indeed, a simple exit from the slums is undreamed of.
The rise and fall of a gangster in “City of God” is rapid, and for a good measure we see the vicious end coming from a distance. The story line interests us because we want to find a closure on vital characters. Rocket’s narration keeps the film evenly paced, and even at 130-minutes the film never slows down in momentum. It maintains a sharp focus on the stories, and it achieves its goals of solely representing a gangster’s lifestyle. The film never glorifies violence, and, instead, it showcases major events, explaining how violence is like a cancer destroying people’s lives in the slums.
“City of God” makes a much-awaited debut on Blu-ray with pleasing results. The 1080p transfer is encoded using an AVC codec and framed in an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The print is damage free, although white specs appear on a few occasions, though never distracting. Clarity stands out, which is evident from the opening shot of the slums. The detail is amazing, and the transfer maintains a sharp focus throughout. Colors are vivid, especially the yellows. In addition, the transfer appears too clean at times, giving an impression of some form of DNR, although it is used sparingly. The video engineers have retained a textural grain that is visible in the shoot-out sequences and during nighttime shots. Finally, the skin tones are realistic and maintain their natural look at all times.
Mostly a dialogue driven film, “City of God” has a number of action sequences. The Portuguese 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track realistically presents the crime drama. As expected, the dialogue is clean and crisp for the entire duration. During the action sequences, we hear realistic sounds coming from guns, and the rear channels remain active, providing an engaging experience. In the daytime shots, the audio track performs ably in capturing the sounds coming from people talking on the streets, in restaurants, and in their homes. One can also watch the film with English subtitles.
There are no new bonus features included for this release; however, Lionsgate ported over the documentary found on the DVD release. It’s an eye-opening 51-minute documentary on the slums of Rio de Janeiro. In this documentary, we see how drugs and guns have crippled the lives of people living in the slums, of people who are a part of the violence, and of people choosing to stay out of gang warfare. Overall, it’s depressing and realistic in presenting the real issue faced by Brazil’s most popular city.
Deliberately constructed like a frustrated narrative, “City of God” is a tour-de-force film, packing skillful filming techniques, a wide range of realistic characters, and a deep story line in one, whole, entertaining package. The film succeeds in convincingly portraying Rio’s deadly gangsters born in the “favelas.” The short stories are arranged like a collage, representing a full-circle view on characters and their lives. Nothing feels incomplete about the film, and it still remains an immensely satisfying experience. This Blu-ray edition is a big improvement over the DVD release, featuring a vibrant 1080p transfer, along with an equally dynamic audio track.