This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
a frightening baby’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
“For both sides, the aim was to take over the enemy's business in order to buy more guns and take over more businesses.” When a throwaway line of narration beautifully summarizes the nature of global capitalism.
But as much as I want to throw on my mass-produced Spencers Che Guevara t-shirt and use the entirety of this review to raise a big Maoist fist against the man, the wide availability of international films is an unintentional benefit of global markets. How else would have I watched masterpiece City of God?... you win this time, financial elite! But beware the Ides of March! Beware! Where was I?
Oh, City of God - yeah, it’s fucking amazing. It is like Goodfellas, except if it was directed and edited by late-career Orson Welles. So it is like an atomic bomb, except… it blows up even more cities. (Metaphor fails me when describing City of God’s energetic brilliance.)
City of God may be the best-edited film I have ever seen, because it ends at about two hours and yet digs extensively into the backstory of about five different characters. Thinking back on it, it puzzles me how the filmmakers were able to do so much so fast.
Li'l Zé’s tyranny is explained step-by-step from his origins as a rotten double-crossing kid named Li’l Dice, all the way to his days as the romantically awkward (putting that lightly aren’t I) boss of Rio. Benny is his fashionable blond-dyed consigliere who acts as a moderator for his worst impulses. At the discotheque, Benny decides to turn his resignation so he can retire to smoke pot with a hippie chick on a farm, but he retires from the world of the living instead when one of Carrot’s many teenage assassins accidentally kills Benny while aiming for Li'l Ze.
Who’s Carrot? Carrot’s backstory is told through a time-lapsed history of his drug-selling den, extending back several colorful owners. Out of friendship, Benny is the only one holding back the impulsively violent Li'l Ze from taking over Carrot’s drug den, after Li'l Ze bluntly murders all other competition. The irony is Carrot accidentally whacks Benny, but meh, Li'l Ze probably would have done it anyway.
Now with no one sensible in his inner circle, Li'l Ze rapes a local stud’s woman, which creates additional casus belli against him and escalates the entire neighborhood into all-out war. Guns are handed out to the local kids as if they were bite-sized Butterfingers on Halloween.
But isn’t there a narrator in City of God? Who is he? He’s nicknamed Rocket - he is not a hoodlum but a virginal teenager who hangs out at the beach taking pictures of flower children. He wants to be a photographer, but his main priority is to get laid. His friend Benny steals his girl from him because, well, he’s slick criminal Benny and Rocket is nobody. Rocket briefly flirts with being a robber and criminal, just to get some mystique with the local ladies... but he quickly finds he is too human to rob or murder anyone. Even an old guy from Sao Paulo is too cool for him to rob - and Sao Paulo is full of squares, man! Trust me, I’ve never been there!
Rocket finally blasts off past his role as merely a narrator of our story when he accidentally allows private photos of Li'l Ze to be published at a newspaper. Rocket is terrified he will be murdered for this transgression, but Li'l Ze is thrilled with the photos (he had his henchmen search through every single newspaper in town for news the prior day). The lady at the paper published them by mistake, and so Rocket finally guilt trips his way into a woman (with the help of some weed). He also manages to walk his way into the final shoot-out between the Li'l Ze’s gang, Carrot’s gang, and the police. He gets all the pictures he needs to sell, but he decies hey, maybe I don’t want to sell the photos of the police funneling weapons to Li'l Ze because I rather like living.
There, I explained the plot points of City of God, and I did it in a linear way. The filmmakers are not as boring as me. Rocket will introduce characters, giving us just enough information to be intrigued, and then he’ll stop and ask us to bookmark them in our head for later. Then he’ll roll back to the significance of a particular character/action right when it is most dramatically satisfying to reveal.
Creative set-up and pay-off combined with legendary editing, all in about two hours of run-time, yet nothing feels left out but maybe a warning for Westerners watching this, “Hey, don’t use our movie to maintain stereotypical views about how violent and murderous poverty is in Brazil. The real violence is in how your ultra-rich corporations rob and pillage the developing world.”
You knew my Maoist fist was coming.