When City of God is all over, it’s possible to believe you’ve been watching the film for around eight hours. Not because it’s boring. But because there is simply no way that director Fernando Mereilles can really have crammed so much action, so many colourful characters, time periods and story strands into a movie which lasts just 130 minutes.
It’s a kinetic, electrifying look at life in a Rio favela seen through the eyes of children drawn into a world of drugs, guns and killings – kids who grow into the criminal overlords who rule the slums through a heady cocktail or ruthless personality and chilling violence. The film’s main protagonist, Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues) is rather more innocent than that, pre-occupied as he is with losing his virginity and becoming a professional photographer.
From his place on the peripheries of proceedings, Rocket provides the narration. His voice is often needed as a whirlwind of characters are rapidly introduced- and violently dispatched almost as quickly. The characters which the film hangs on, however, are brilliantly drawn: the sociopathically violent gang leader L’il Ze (Leandro Firmino da Hora) and amiable Benny (Phellipe Haagensen) particularly.
L’il Ze’s tangible menace is allied keenly with his youth: he’s seen butchering innocent people as a child in a chillingly brutal scene. And then taking great delight in butchering children as an adolescent. He’s as much a victim of the favela as anyone else, though. Almost every character here is without a traditional home – relying instead on the network of criminals and their codes of honour to replace the family unit. Indeed, adult characters rarely appear anywhere in the film.
The destruction of the kids’ dreams happens early on as their football as obliterated with a bullet. Clearly, these youngsters will never play their way out of the ghetto. Theirs will be the way of the bullet. Some, such as L’il Ze, will shape and define their lives with violence, rape and intimidation. Others, like Rocket will see their dreams cut down by the violent acts of others. But nobody will escape.
The film has particularly resonance given its basis in fact. The source for the script, Paolo Lins’ novel of the same name, was featured real characters from his childhood (many of whom are pictured in the closing credits with their fictionalised equivalent). The vast majority of the cast, too, were drawn from the real favelas and were acting on film for the first time.
The storytelling, in particular is magnificent, utilising flashbacks, narration, captions and collages to create a breathtakingly effective collection of intertwined stories. Mereilles accelerates through some scenes before revisiting them later, offers tantalising glimpses of the future and then reverses back to an earlier key moment which needs fuller explanation. Told linearly, City of God would be a brilliant film. Told this way, it is simply wonderful.