Luke Thomas’s review published on Letterboxd:
Loosely based on real events, City of God is a raw and gritty film that spans two decades in Cidade de Deus (Portugese for 'City of God'), an impoverished suburb of Rio de Janeiro which is a host to gangs, violence and crime. The film shows the evolution of the slum between the late 1960s to early 1980s, as the local gangs go from commiting petty crime to declaring an all out war with rivalling drug cartels.
The film opens to the intrusive sound of a knife being sharpened on a whetstone, juxtaposed against the sounds of a crowd cheering and upbeat Brazilian music. The evocative and disturbing sounds and visuals of the street party is a consistent element throughout the whole film, as director Fernando Meirelles frequently utilises harsh cuts, handheld camera shots and sharp sounds to really visualise the unpredictability and volatility of the location.
The main focus in this first scene is on a lone chicken, trying desperated to escape the party before it's inevitable slaughter. As it makes its escape through the winding streets of the slum whilst being chased by a gang, it crosses paths with Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues) a wannabe photographer and the stories narrator, who lives in the slums and acts as the literal chicken in this story, being the only character that isn't seduced to a life of crime.
We then flashback to the 1960s and see the development of the slums crime levels, from early street crime to drugs, police corruption and gang war. This developed is mirrored most through the ascension to power of Lil Dice (Douglas Silva as a boy, Leandro Firmina da Hora as an adult), a power hungry and sociopathic drug lord, who's life is parralled to that of Rocket.
The films performances are all excellent and incredibly realistic, and are without a doubt the standout element of the film. The choice to use unknown actors that were actually from the slums in Brazil heightens the films overall realism, and makes everything that happens in the story all the more visceral and raw. The unpolished and imperfect cinematography also adds to this sense of realism, and makes the events of the film even more disturbing and grim to watch.
The film also boasts a Tarantino-esque narrative and style, that interweaves various flashbacks, stories and dark humour, and manages to focus on a huge range of well fleshed out, scarily human characters that make the world of the movie feel so lived in.
City of God may occasionally feel it's length, and some of its strongest emotional moments, particularly the romance between Rocket and Angélica, are not given the attention or conclusion that they fully deserve. But despite this the film manages to work despite its few flaws due to how visceral and engaging the story and the characters manage to be. I would highly recommend watching this film, and it will definitely be a hard one to forget.