Louis Day’s review published on Letterboxd:
I've known about this movie for over a decade, maybe even fifteen years. As a kid I would obsessively go through boxofficemojo's top 250 and imdb's top 250, and this rates very high on the latter. Based on it being foreign drama about slums, drugs, and other depressing topics, I had built up an image over that period of time of what this movie was going to be. I fully expected this to be really heavy.
The movie starts with people chasing a chicken with frenetic cuts and shots from the chicken's shoulders. In other words, the complete opposite of the picture in my brain. This is a kinetic, cheeky movie, sometimes overly so, but generally in a way that makes a story that could often times be rather dour an engaging watch. The color shifts as the decades change, the music that always gives a slightly whimsical but period accurate vibe, and use of smart edits give this movie a rather unique style, and so many scenes are way more fun than you would necessarily expect them to be.
One of the more bizarre aspects of the movie is its development of characters. With the exception of two of them, everyone can be kind of flat, but still oddly memorable. Hell, even one of the two I DO consider interesting doesn't get a whole lot of meat. This one is Benny, who is legitimately as cool as everyone says he is. I'd hang out with Benny, even though he works for a sadistic monster. Benny almost is the embodiment of the vibe of the movie, and you miss him when he has to exit the film.
The only character that has any real depth given to him is Lil Ze, but that's only because they make him SO MONSTROUS. Like Jesus, he might be one of the most evil characters I've seen in a movie, even when he was a kid. The tone of the movie almost alleviates how fucked up he is, but really, there's no way anyone could be sympathetic to him.
Now, despite the strengths of those two characters, the rest are kind of weak. Most of the male characters are given some sort of revenge plot to be driven by, and that's their sole motivation. The female characters are literally just objects for the male characters to pine over too. I get that they may not have done much relevant to the real life story in terms of the drug wars, but the second the guy going after her is gone or moves on, the girl leaves the movie no matter how interconnected they seem to be to the other characters. All of these characters ARE given fun and memorable scenes, though, and sometimes even catchy names. Despite me not particularly thinking his story was super well done, I still remember Knockout Ned's name, which makes me think that maybe there's more there than I'm giving credit for.
Now, as for the theme of this movie, I want to say, writing it down sounds way more depressing than it is shown on screen. The film's depictions of the world the character's live in seems to state that there is no escape from the cycle, and that the only way to live decently is through the gun. The City of God is out of sight of the government, with only a possible deity watching over them. Even Lil Ze gets spiritual blessing to try to push him forward, but really, the only real progress is made through violence. Knockout Ned tried to get out through hard work, but he only managed to get a job running a bus. The second he has a gun, he begins to thrive. It's some sad stuff.
Rocky, the main character of this movie (who I haven't brought up much because he kinda seems like he's barely a focus?), does have a weapon of his own, but not until the end. For most of the movie, he wanders through life, but when given a camera, his own means of fighting back, he begins to have agency. The only way to make it out is to fight. However, there's still some glumness here. While yes, his photography is pushing back on the world that is being created outside of public view and finally gives him a chance, he still doesn't fully get the reward he deserves. There's a reason the City of God became what it is. It's hard to escape, because even if you do, those who fall into crime live the better life, albeit shorter. Why do the good thing, when the bad thing is easier and more rewarding? It's a tough question, and oddly enough the film doesn't seem to end particularly dark. The cycle continues, but maybe that's just the way things are.