reed’s review published on Letterboxd:
Right from the start, City of God plunges us into a terrifying, wild, world that very much existed (and exists still). We're not given the time even to register what's going on as the opening scene - the chicken chase, which also serves as the climax of the film at the end - suddenly just begins. We're already in the middle of the action.
The way City of God is structured in general is just so brilliant. It starts at an important moment that doesn't make much sense to its viewers at first. Then it jumps back and tells over 20 years of history leading to that moment. In this way, it tells a sprawling crime story that surges ahead with more violence and profanity by the minute.
In many ways, this reminded me of a Scorsese gangster movie. It's obviously complete unique too, but I noticed a lot of similarities. For instance, Scorsese's use of the soundtrack is an integral part of films like Goodfellas, or the Departed, or the Irishman. Here the soundtrack is utilized in much the same way, playing in the background as characters make tough decisions and the viewers watch tough scenes and events. The soundtrack was vital to the styles of both Scorsese's films and City of God.
Another thing was the narration throughout. The main character - who we realize doesn't even play much of a role in the story - walks us through the slow set up and turmoil that made the events in City of God happen. Totally reminded me of something like the Irishman or Raging Bull, as Scorsese loves narration. He also loves telling stories over many many years, which City of God also did wonderfully.
But enough about how City of God is copying Scorsese. It's also a completely new and different experience from anything I'd ever seen. It was shot on location - in dangerous suburbs of Rio de Janeiro - and utilizes a camera technique that, while it can be tedious, completely forces the viewer to focus all attention on the events of the film. The story structure is so fascinating - as I said, it's this sprawling, epic film. We get little texts leading us into the next story which makes it seem even more like a book, with one little chapter contextualizing what will come next.
The characters all pop out as unique, obviously some more likable than others. Benny was easily my favorite character, as I think he was for many people. Just a likable, normal guy, who - yes - did crime, but in the end wanted to escape that life for something better. Instead, at his own "Goodbye" Party he gets shot, which eventually leads to a decade-long war between powerful gangs.
So at the center of City of God is that simple sense of inevitability, the sense of dread that you know more violence will come. It's a cycle, it's something that's not just easily stopped. Especially when all the 10-year old kids were volunteering for various reasons - one gang killed their brother, or another blew up their house, etc. - it struck me that new blood would just come in and continue that violent war, never ending. And the ending sadly confirmed the film's overarching message. Something very similar to Unforgiven or the Searchers, which are obviously both Westerns but have a lot of themes that pertain very relevantly to City of God.
The overall confidence of style in City of God also strikes me. The camera movements are like nothing else I've seen before. They're wild, almost violent in of themselves, and hold back nothing. While, as I said, that can get taxing and withdraw my enjoyment, it's really not that big of a deal for me to penalize the entire movie for. It works for what it is.
It's over two hours, but City of God felt like one held out scream, a piercing, punishing journey through the darkness of the true City of God, and of the human heart. Very deserving of its high reputation.