This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
noantwo’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
This film works with the premise of how, in order to talk about a subject, you have to give the backstory of a related subject, and so forth recursively. Now, ordinarily this would easily result in us losing the thread and the main point of the story never being told. But in the City of God, everyone's stories are interconnected. And they're the same: they're stories of violence.
The overall effect the film has on you is to disturb. There's a vicious cycle of revenge, greed, and power going on. Even very young children are participating. Lil Dice's coldblooded massacre was a prelude, but it's not like he's without allies. He moves into the drug trade, creating addicts and ruthlessly murdering any competition.
Our center throughout this is Rocket, who, although naive, manages to avoid the chaos. Instead, he's infatuated with getting laid and becoming a photographer. This makes him relatable, but also harder to gauge. Lil Ze on the other hand is much more easier to plumb the depths of. When Rocket makes the decision to publish the death photo and not the photograph showing police corruption, it's pivotal, but only in a small way compared to all the tumult of the rest of the film. It's all so overwhelming that it's hard to fault him for something that barely matters compared to the mayhem. Of course the film also gives us as viewers insight into how interconnected it all is, such as how the police enabled Lil Ze, and even supplied his weapons.
The fact that the same characters reappear really gives this film the feel of a small city. The cast becomes familiar and we pick up their traits and roles. The ensemble plays their roles quite convincingly and in a straightforward manner, which lends to the grittiness. The city itself is brimming with character and always feels like an actual location than just a set for a film to take place in; the music and culture root us in place and time (the latter especially noticeable with the overseas pop imports).
The direction is top notch. The film never feels overwhelmed by shootings because they're spaced appropriately (though I'm sure we also get desensitized to them as viewers). The director splays the violence right in our faces, showing us the bullet holes in the feet of young boys, or the spray of holes in someone's back. The camera follows the action at the right distance to give us the appropriate disconnect and fear. The locations are standout, with that beach being my favorite, as well as the narrow alleys of the city making it feel intimate. The photography shows considerable creativity such as with the strobe lights during Benny's death.
The overall theme of the film seems to be a meditation on life contrasting each character's different approach. Lil Ze's rule by force works for him as long as he holds the power, but he's upended by the very Runts he intimidated earlier. While Lil Ze just wanted power, we have Carrot who just wants to survive. His approach only lets him roll with the tide. Then we have Knockout Ned, who starts out with strong morals, but they deteriorate as the hatred grows in him. For each of them, they succumb to the power of the city. There's an ironic moment in the film where the killers take the Lord's Prayer, but tweak the lyrics towards themselves, before proceeding to start a gang war.
This film was on my to-watch list for sooooo long. Watching La Haine only made me want to see this more. I'm so glad I finally got to it. These films are so important in giving voice to places that are usually dismissed with sneers and without any attempt to sympathize. They practically yell out for the recognition of their humanity.