louferrigno’s review published on Letterboxd:
City of God manages to ruthlessly convey the state of crime among the Brazilian slums and excel with a narrative that leaps and bounds above the Brazilian barrier, without the severity of the real events cobbled together to form something that embodies the "damned if you do, damned if you don't" terror being lost in translation. Adapted from a novel loosely based on true events (which the film waits to mention until the end, as if to remind the audience that the endless ordeal of gang violence we just witnessed was indeed a living nightmare witnessed by the innocents there), as well as utilizing then-inexperienced citizens of the favelas within the "City of God" itself, it creates something truly real and gut-wretching to watch, a ceaseless vision of a world divided that could only exist within a masterpiece.
A few of the films I love immensely have rich worldbuilding in them to not only flesh out the lives of focal characters within, but also imply there is more beyond that the imagination is eager to supply, and this falls into that same positive. Rocket introduces us to the City of God and sets up everyone who has a major story to tell, as well as key events that all play a part in the final confrontation. All of these diversions and side-stories are essential towards understanding both our narrator's position and the chain of events that cause a gang war to spiral out of control (not that there was much) and feel completely interconnected, especially with a very minor detail that proves to be a catalyst towards one of the final deaths. The city itself becomes a major player, guiding the worst of these criminals through its lack of care and decrepit state, and it's not hard to think of what horrible atrocities occur because of these gangsters (yes I know there's a TV spin-off, don't know how to feel about it being a dramedy though).
As the film progresses, the true horrors lying within the depressing atmosphere, where violence takes precedence in an economic state where the possibility and necessity of being a gangster is exponentially raised. Nothing is safe, not even the Runts who interfere with the biggest gangster Zé's empire and are brutally taught a lesson, nor the cops who are proven to be susceptible of corruption by means of false evidence or bribery. Not everything in the film is entirely grim, as we do see things from the perspective of Rocket, dreaming of being a photographer, and the world-weary hope that allows him to keep going and come of age even in a world that starts out as a purgatory, then evolves into Hell. Plenty of moments also serve to instill a sense of mood whiplash, to illustrate the richness of life seedily undercut by the gang violence that runs the city, most prominently being Benny's party, a moment of levity that ends with tragedy, a common end for many involved, directly or tangentially.
Many praised City of God for its portrayal of gangsters in the poor side of Rio de Janeiro, and complimented it by referring it as "The Goodfellas of Brazil". Beyond the subject matter, there is also plenty of quick edits that serve as a stylistic touch in putting you within the frantic state of the streets here, as well as the structure in condensing 20 years of time down to its essential parts (though, really, any film inspired by real events should do this, and it's a major warning if this isn't the case). While Scorsese's magnum opus (well, maybe not to everyone) could be argued as a glorification of these mobsters even when the sham of their self-worth in being a wiseguy is up-and-center, there is no doubt that the gangster lifestyle here is one of madness and despair, and there's enough to suggest that isn't going to end just because a war ends. Magnificent and utterly shocking, I'll give you props for this one Brazil.