Fred Kolb’s review published on Letterboxd:
From its very first scene, a chicken attempting to escape from a gruesome encounter with a butcher’s knife, “City of God” establishes itself as a film of immense urgency. The editing is fast, the camerawork shaky and hectic. We are thrown into a world in turmoil, a relentless assault on our senses and emotions. This has the feel of a far better documentary than most actual documentaries, with footage of such powerful authenticity that it’s hard to fathom it was all staged. The international sensation from the early 2000s, which was produced by a Brazilian film crew and stars inexperienced child actors who grew up in the slums of Rio, is nothing short of breathtaking. There are in fact numerous scenes infused with such a ruthless intensity that you would be well advised to hold off on exhaling for a bit. It’s riveting, painful and radiates existential sadness like very few other coming-of-age dramas set in a world of inescapable crime. I don’t hesitate to call this is an instant addition to my Top 10 favorite films of all time. I already know it will haunt me for days to come.
The City of God is one of the countless, crime-ridden favelas in the outskirts of Rio, the town embraced by Christ the Redeemer, but also home to countless residents beyond saving. It’s never explained where the seemingly ironic name stems from, but it's obvious that there are preciously few places that are less likely to have received the Lord’s blessing. Maybe it’s meant to imply a sense of helplessness, the inability to escape from a preordained fate of living and dying by the bullet. Or maybe it’s a reference to the absence of any law but God’s law, which has been used as shorthand for centuries to justify the most heinous crimes imaginable. “City of God” opens with a senseless massacre in a motel, a building littered with corpses just because one trigger-happy guy had something to prove to his dismissive elders. There is always another generation, usually just a few years behind, waiting to take charge and claim the territory via brutal means. Cocaine kingpin Li'l Zé, a hot-blooded maniac, who gets off on gunfire, manages to secure the peace for a while, by murdering all the other gang members in the neighborhood. Until he risks it all because a random girl he asks to dance at a party rejects his advances. Toxic masculinity has always been a major theme in movies. It just wasn’t widely called that until recently.
There is nothing more attractive in a film than every frame, every minor choice being infused with confidence, and “City of God” is brimming with the inspiring self-assurance of a director and crew, all of whom clearly had a personal stake in telling this story. Cesar Charlone’s deliberately hectic, shaky camerawork befits the choice of narrator, a photographer, who is one of the few players who manage to keep on the periphery of the rapidly escalating violence and observe rather than partake in the action. The film covers several decades and cycles through a sizable palette of characters, all of whom return to the scene at various points, sometimes with quite unexpected connections to some of the other guys we met previously. And just as startling as their reappearances can be, so are most of their sudden, bloody exits. Bráulio Mantovan’s script is populated with memorable figures, who even in the briefest of appearances leave a deep, emotional scar on this inferno of a world we have been tossed into. He doesn’t take mercy on us, let alone his characters. Nobody is ever safe. Or just gets to pack up and leave. They have all become so deeply embedded into this self-perpetuating cycle of casual violence that they are all likely to end up in a puddle of their own blood some day. Even the coolest kid in town isn’t safe from standing in the way of a bullet meant for someone else.
It’s an almost sacred rule in films that young children, the innocent, are exempt from being hurt or killed. But being a child in this environment doesn’t mean you are immune to arbitrary gunfire or the allure of running through the streets with a gun tucked into your pants. There is lots of chest puffing, teens with tons of testosterone to spare popping someone just for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Kids are shot at point blank range, sometimes in a cruel test of manhood, but often for no other reason than being at home in a place abandoned by everyone, perhaps even God himself. Fernando Meirelles and his co-director Kátia Lund had absolutely no interest in whitewashing this hell. And that makes their project all the more admirable.